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Donald Caskie – An Island Hero

On The 11th November, 2023 it is especially important that we reflect on the wars of the past, and honour those who fought and died to allow us a brighter and better future. One such war hero was Donald Caskie a Church of Scotland minister nicknamed the Tartan Pimpernel who helped assist the safe return home of around 500 service men and 1500 civilians from occupied France during the Second World War.

Donald was born and brought up in Bowmore on Islay, some of us will know that as the home of Bowmore Whiskey. He was the son of a crofter, who went to the University of Edinburgh to study arts and divinity. He was ordained in 1924, his first charge as minister was in Gretna but in 1938 he became the minister of the Scots Kirk in Paris. After the invasion of France in 1940 Caskie ignored the advice of the Church of Scotland to return home, he gave up the chance of a free passage home to safety but instead travelled to Marseilles. In Marseilles Caskie established a refuge for stranded Britons, through his contacts he helped over 500 allied service personnel & 1500 civilians to escape to Spain from there they could reach Britain.

He was arrested by the Vichy French authorities, betrayed by an informer, thankfully his life was spared, due to the lack of evidence against him. He was given a suspended sentence and expelled from Marseilles. He then went to Grenoble, where he took up his post as chaplain at the university. He was later interned along with other British-born civilians living in the occupied countries. Though after being taken to Italy, he was able to arrange his own release and the release of others. However, the Gestapo were now taking much more of an interest in Donald and in 1943 he was arrested again before being put on trial at Fresnes Prison south of Paris and sentenced to death. His request to see a pastor led to a meeting with the German army padres who thankfully and successfully appealed to Berlin to spare Donalds life.

Donald spent the rest of his life in a prisoner of war camp, after the war ended, he returned to Paris and resumed his role as minister of the Scots Kirk. He was awarded an OBE for his wartime role and honoured by the French Government. The Kirk was in a very sorry state after the war and in order to help with the rebuilding of it Caskie wrote a book about his wartime exploits. The book was entitled “The Tartan Pimpernel” which was published in 1957.

Donald returned to Scotland in 1961 and took up a position as minister at Skelmorlie and Wemyss Bay North Church. He died in Greenock in 1983 and is buried at Bowmore on Islay.

This story highlights the sheer selflessness of one man to do good for others, and when offered the chance to alleviate his suffering he choose to ignore this and help. His actions had a huge impact on 100’s of families not just at the time but long into the future, what a legacy he leaves behind and his story asks us all to reflect on our kindness to others.