WHEN the producers were casting around to find a suitable subject for the 100th edition of This Is Your Life in 1959, some bright spark on the team suggested a war hero that many people nowadays know very little about.

Thus it was that on Monday, August 24, 1959, in the foyer of the BBC studios in Edinburgh, legendary presenter Eamonn Andrews stepped forward with the Big Red Book and said in time-honoured fashion: “Reverend Donald Caskie, this is your life.”

The Church of Scotland minister, like almost every other subject of the programme down the decades, was completely flummoxed and taken aback, especially as Andrews then introduced Caskie’s brother Tom and many people from his past life. You will learn of some later … So why was a minister of the kirk on the programme which, it should be known, more often featured celebrities and sports stars, but which from time to time featured “real-life” stories about ordinary people who became heroes or who, more likely, had heroism thrust upon them.

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Not that the Rev Donald Caskie was completely unknown. For two years previously, his autobiography had been published and it shot him straight to the top of the best-seller list and also made him rather famous.

The title of the book was the Tartan Pimpernel, and it told the extraordinary true-life story of Caskie, the minister who defied the Nazis and the Vichy regime to help organise the repatriation of downed Allied air force personnel and escaped prisoners in Occupied France during the Second World War. His memoirs left out one major detail about Caskie. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Act which decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults, it seems very strange to us now that someone like Caskie had to spend his entire life covering up the fact that he was gay.

In the 1920s and 1930s when Caskie first began his ministry, homosexuality was openly condemned and men were sent to prison if discovered in flagrante delicto. The position of a gay minister would have been untenable if Caskie’s secret had became known.

It wasn’t, for a very good reason. For most of his homosexual activities were conducted in France, where he became minister of the Scots Kirk in Paris in 1935.

Born the son of a crofter at Bowmore on Islay in 1902, Caskie studied at the island’s school and then Dunoon Grammar School before going to Edinburgh University where he studied arts and divinity. He had known his vocation from early childhood, and became a minister of the Church of Scotland in 1924. His first charge as minister was to the parish at Gretna St Andrews and from there he moved to Paris.

Caskie wrote: “I had been called to Paris from my quiet country parish in Gretna, and I learned to love the beautiful city to which I had come. I remember the last sermon I had preached in Gretna … on the Great Call that came to the Apostle Paul. ‘Arise, go into the city, and it shall be told to you what you must do’.”

The ministry also allowed Caskie to spread his wings, and he greatly enjoyed his many encounters with the society life of Paris. Here, too, he did not feel the need to be always secretive about his sexuality — indeed, some accounts have him as being quite flamboyant.

His idyllic life changed when Nazi Germany began their expansionist activities, which he railed against from the pulpit each Sunday.

Caskie watched with horror as Austria and German “merged” and then Poland, Belgium and finally France was invaded.

In June 1940, he recalled being asked if he wanted to leave for Scotland: “Suddenly I knew with utter certainty that God wanted me to stay in France.”

He was approached by the French authorities before Paris was occupied. They told him: “We know you are the only member of your calling now at liberty in France. We can arrange for you to go home if you wish.” Caskie responded: “There’s nothing I’d like better, but that is impossible. I cannot desert my own people in such a dreadful hour of need. I am a minister. How could I leave them?”

Like so many refugees, he fled south from Paris and by mid-July 1940 had settled at the British Seamen’s Mission in Marseilles, the port which became part of Vichy France. Within days he was helping Allied service personnel to escape France, usually via Spain, and under the noses of the German occupiers and their French collaborators, he made contact with the Resistance and increased his activities, all the while carrying out his normal duties as a pastor.

The exact number of people that he helped escape is not known, but friends of Caskie’s estimate that it could have been up to 500 service personnel and up to 1500 civilians. He did so in conditions of round-the-clock danger, as the Vichy regime employed many spies to seek out escaped prisoners, including Fascist police known as the Malice. Sometimes he was able to use his native Gaelic to baffle his pursuers, and sent telegrams to the Church of Scotland offices in Edinburgh referring to people he had helped spirit out of France.

Betrayed by an informer, Caskie was hauled in front of a French court. Caskie’s own account of his trial before a Vichy Military Tribunal contains humour that does not quite conceal his genuine fear that he was to be executed like so many who refused to bow down to the German forces and their French collaborators.

Defending himself as a Scot, he reached back into history and quoted the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland that dated back to 1295.

The judge asked him: “You are English?” Caskie replied: “No sir, I am Scottish.”

Accused by the Juge d’instrucion of espionage and being an enemy of France, he added: “I have told you I am a Scot and you say I am an enemy of France. My record in France proves that accusation is nonsense. The history of our two countries shows it to be demonstrable rubbish.

“I love France next to my own country which is France’s ally now as ever.”

CASKIE couldn’t help but add loudly: “When our troops liberate France from its present undignified position, with the help of honest Frenchman who are, thank the good God, by far the greatest number of Frenchmen, you will discover again how much we love this land.”

The verdict was now inevitable, but the sentence surprised Caskie. Instead of imprisonment or death, the judge sentenced Caskie to two years in jail, suspended for two years, and hinted that Caskie should go into internal exile in France away from Marseilles. The judge and later even the police suggested Grenoble, the French city just 100 miles from the border with neutral Switzerland.

Perhaps the judge guessed what Caskie would do next, for after again turning down the chance of repatriation, in Grenoble he carried on his pimpernel work for two years while working as a university chaplain, until he was eventually arrested and detained by the Gestapo, the hated German secret police.

He was imprisoned in a villa in Nice and later recalled scrawling his name and a biblical quote: “Fear not, for I am with thee, saith the Lord,” on the wall of his room.

In Grenoble he had met many characters such as Pat O’Leary, who was really a Belgian officer; Major General Albert Guérrise, who helped Caskie organise the escape of many prisoners and air crew, and clergy from Protestant denominations as well as Catholic priests who assisted Caskie tend to his flock and helped his secret activities. It was to be a cleric from a different denomination who would save Caskie’s life.

Transferred to the Fresnes Prison south of Paris, Caskie was given a mock trial and sentenced to death.

German army padre and Lutheran pastor Hans-Helmut Peters came to see the condemned man, and was so impressed by the Scot that he made a personal appeal to the authorities in Berlin for the sentence to be commuted.

Perhaps knowing that killing a clergyman might backfire on them later, the Germans did indeed sentence Caskie to prison rather than execute him, and he saw out the remainder of the war in a prisoner of war camp where, true to his calling, he tended to the spiritual needs of his fellow prisoners.

He was later awarded the OBE and a high French honour for his wartime service.

Caskie finally went back to the Scots Kirk to resume his ministry, but the building was in a poor state. He then wrote The Tartan Pimpernel to help pay for the reconstruction and it was a runaway success — why it was never made into a major film is a mystery, though the BBC screened a memorable documentary about Caskie in 2001.

Caskie returned to Scotland in and during the 1960s and 70s he served as minister at Gourock, Wemyss Bay and Skelmorlie before his final call to St Cuthbert’s Church, Old Monkton, Ayrshire.

His final years were sad in the respect that he had no permanent home and lived either at the Royal Scots Club or various bed-and-breakfast establishments in Edinburgh before moving to live with his brother Tom in Greenock.

The Rev Donald Caskie died there in 1983 and is buried at Kilarrow Church in Bowmore, with his medals on display there near the square named in his honour.

Back to that memorable 100th edition of This Is Your Life. Among those who were introduced and spoke of Caskie’s bravery were Commander Redvers Prior DSO, DSC, a famous Commando officer, and French Resistance hero General Georges Malraison. There were also a number of personal testimonials, most notably from Jo Grimond, the Orkney and Shetland MP and then leader of the Liberal Party, but the biggest and best surprise was kept to near the end.

For with his usual dramatic flourish, Eamonn Andrews stood aside as he welcomed into the studio none other than Pastor Hans-Helmut Peters, the man who had saved Caskie’s life in 1943.

The 100th edition of This Is Your Life proved to be utterly memorable due to the heroism of many of those who featured, most especially the Tartan Pimpernel himself.