Down Memory Lane, June 25 2021

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‘Tartan Pimpernel’ war hero honoured in Paris

An Islay minister nicknamed the Tartan Pimpernel who helped orchestrate the safe return of around 2,000 servicemen from occupied France during the Second World War has been honoured in Paris.

Reverend Dr Donald Caskie, whose nephew Gordon Caskie lives in Campbeltown, has been commemorated on a marble plaque outside the Scots Kirk where he was the minister 81 years ago.

Reverend Dr Donald Caskie has been commemorated on a plaque outside the Scots Kirk where he was the minister 81 years ago.
Reverend Dr Donald Caskie has been commemorated on a plaque outside the Scots Kirk where he was the minister 81 years ago.

About 100 people attended the unveiling ceremony on June 10 including local church members and representatives from Mairie de Paris – Paris City Hall – and the Scottish Government.

School pupils read in English and French extracts from Dr Caskie’s book, The Tartan Pimpernel, which tells how he fearlessly worked with the French Resistance to help trapped or imprisoned airmen, seamen and soldiers escape Nazi-occupied France.

Lord Wallace, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, was unable to attend the ceremony due to Covid-19 travel restrictions but said that it was a fitting tribute to an ‘inspirational, distinguished and courageous’ man.

Dr Caskie was the minister at the Scots Kirk when the Germans invaded France in 1940.

Frequently denouncing the Nazis from the pulpit meant he had more to fear than many after the invasion.

He was repeatedly urged to return home and, after the Dunkirk evacuation, he locked the church and joined the mass exodus of Paris.

In the end, the crofter’s son, said to have had the Celtic gift of ‘second sight’, rejected the chance of safe passage on the last ship bound for the UK on the grounds that his place should be given to a wounded man instead.

Dr Caskie believed that God had commanded him to stay in France and help stranded Brits and he was warned that he must only engage with civilians and would be arrested if he assisted servicemen.

While running a seaman’s mission, he secretly helped airmen, seamen and soldiers, under the noses of the Vichy Police, escape the country across mountains into Spain or by sea in a submarine or ship.

Dr Caskie, a Gaelic speaker whose codename was Monsieur Le Canard – Donald Duck – was eventually recruited by British Intelligence officers and was told that his mission was the last link of a chain of safe houses that they had set up, which stretched from Dunkirk to Marseille.

Lord Wallace revealed that Dr Caskie was one of his heroes when he was at school in Dumfries and Galloway.

‘In my first year at Annan Academy, our rector read extracts from the Tartan Pimpernel at morning assembly,’ he recalled.

‘The narrative of speaking out against oppression; standing up, in faith, for principles; acts of daring; acts of courage; saving lives; being betrayed and survival ensured that the next instalment was eagerly anticipated.

‘He was a man who placed his trust in his Lord and Saviour, a man who refused to take the easy way out, a man who took huge risks to rescue others.’

Dr Caskie was eventually arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo and sentenced to death.

His life was only saved through the intervention of a German pastor and he spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp.

Dr Caskie returned to Scotland after a spell in Paris and died in 1983 at the age of 81 and is buried at Bowmore on Islay.