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Friday January 12 2018

Looking Back: The Tartan Pimpernel

A 1958 review of the Rev Donald Caskie's famous account of his wartime exploits

We do not wish to revive war hatred by recalling war horrors. But here are memories recalled to strengthen faith, not to fan vindictiveness. Here is human evil mastered in the strength of Christ’s Love.

DONALD CASKIE, Scots minister in Paris, has told his story (“The Tartan Pimpernel”: Oldbourne Press, 15s.)

FRASER McLUSKEY, who was parachuted into enemy-occupied France with men of the Parachute Brigade, has read the book and describes it.

WHEN France fell in 1940, Donald Caskie was ministering to the Scots congregation in Paris. The arrival of the German troops in Paris closed down the Scots Kirk but not the work of its pastor. How this ministry continued until the liberation of the country so dear to his heart is told most memorably and movingly in The Tartan Pimpernel.

Joining the general exodus from Paris, Dr. Caskie made his way to Bayonne. From here he might have taken ship for home and freedom. In Bayonne, however, he felt that his work still lay in France; and he declined the passage offered to him. It was a courageous decision. Making his way to the unoccupied zone, he settled in Marseilles, becoming the superintendent of the Seamen’s Mission. Here, in conjunction with our own Secret Service, he maintained an escape organisation remarkable alike for its efficiency and audacity.

To the Seamen’s Mission came Allied soldiers and airmen in ever-increasing numbers. There they found care and concealment until, fitted out in appropriate fashion, they could be passed on along the route that led to home. No college course could have prepared a Scots pastor for work such as this. The story makes it evident that Caskie had within himself just what it takes – a compassion that matched his courage, a shrewd Scots head on his shoulders and an inexhaustible reservoir of unselfish energy. More than that! You may begin this book healthily sceptical of what they call the second sight. You are likely to end it a little less dogmatic on the subject. This man from Islay sees more deeply than do most of us.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt of this: The Tartan Pimpernel reveals its author as a man of God. Here is a man who lives by prayer, taking the needs of others and his own to God in full and glad assurance. Here is a man for whom the Bible is the ever living Word of God, strengthening the soul in every time of special need.

After the arrest to which his work was bound to lead, Caskie was imprisoned. For months he endured conditions which might well have broken any man. At first his Bible was removed, and he tells how, in his solitary confinement, passage after passage was present to his mind, lifting his soul above the filth and squalor, the cruelty and suffering into the presence and the peace of God.

“When the guards rattled the bars of my cell and I went forward to take my crust and pan of water, I saw in the latter a fly scrambling to get out. I picked it out and set it on the floor… It crawled across the floor and I followed it to one of the walls where former prisoners had inscribed the honours roll of those who had passed through the Gethsemane of the Villa Lynwood. I was one of them. My nails were long and uncut and I recall the irony that filled my heart as I considered the claw of my right thumb. Carefully I inscribed my name and rank in the Church of Scotland in the hard plaster. The task finished, I observed my handiwork. It was, I flatter myself, quite a neat job. The roll was up to date. But I was a padre. Choosing a largish space on the plaster untouched by names, I wrote: ‘Thus saith the Lord… Fear not: for I have redeemed thee… I have called thee by thy name. Thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shall not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee…’”

After a series of imprisonments Caskie finds himself back in Paris, the special care of the Gestapo. Condemned to death, only the last minute intervention of a German chaplain stays his execution and transfers him to the comparative security of a Prisoner of War camp. Here, with other allied prisoners, he awaits the longed for liberation.

Scots the world over will want to read and own this book. It reads as easily and invitingly as any tale of brave adventure. It makes a worthy contribution to our understanding of the war in France. It spotlights heroism in some unexpected quarters and gives a glimpse of what that heroism cost. It introduces us to one in whom a deep devotion, both to Scotland and to France, goes ever hand in hand with love to God and all his fellow men. Here is a son of whom both Scotland and the Kirk is proud indeed.

The Tartan Pimpernel, which was published to help fund the post-war rebuilding of the Scots Kirk, made Donald Caskie a celebrity, and he featured on This Is Your Life in September 1959. He returned to Scotland in the early 1960s, serving at Wemyss Bay and Skelmorlie, and St Cuthbert's Church, Monkton. He died in Edinburgh in 1983. The book is scheduled for its latest reprint in April this year, and is available as an ebook.

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