Donald Caskie spent much of his adult life playing a double game - against a Scotland he found bleak and uncongenial, against the Kirk, of whom he was a minister - and, most dangerously, against the Nazis.
In a BBC2 documentary tomorrow, Gaelic poet and broadcaster Angus Peter Campbell puts Caskie’s reputation to the test. And, as he journeys through Paris, Marseilles and Grenoble in the wartime footsteps of the minister, Campbell gains insight into a complex hero.
In The Tartan Pimpernel (made in Gaelic with English subtitles by Saltire Films, and funded by Comataidh Craolaidh Gaidhlig) Campbell starts out not particularly enamoured with his subject: "I don’t think I ever liked Donald Caskie," he declares at the offset. "I was a poor Catholic, a republican and a socialist; he was a Church of Scotland minister who frolicked with the aristocracy, where he wanted to be."
Perhaps a double life would have always been on the cards for Caskie, even if he hadn’t been minister of the Scots Kirk in Paris when the Germans occupied the city. For he was gay in an age when - in Scotland, certainly - homosexuality would have enforced a double life. But right from the start, Caskie stood out as different. Born in 1902 in Islay, he wanted to be a minister from the age of six and knew, instinctively, that sooner or later he would have to leave.
Leave he did, for secondary school in Dunoon, then for university in Edinburgh where he was ordained in 1924. But the daily grind of a conventional parish charge was not for him. He was posted to the Scots Kirk in Paris, where he occupied a sumptuous manse and held ceilidhs attended by Paris high society. As well as a flamboyant host, he proved to be a skilled fixer. An old friend, the Rev John Cameron, recalls: "We used to call the manse the Scots embassy. If you’d lost your passport, he’d fix it for you. He was networking long before the term had been invented."
And he was loving it. "I don’t think I’d ever been more alive," Caskie, played by Jimmy Grant in dramatised interludes, recalls as he lies dying in a Greenock hospital.
Caskie’s infatuation with the upper classes, reckons Campbell, was the result of growing up amid Islay’s "landlord-ridden society". So far as his homosexuality was concerned - "straight at home, gay abroad," as Campbell puts it - perhaps it was just another strand of the double life on which he seemed to thrive and which came into its own after the Germans invaded France in 1940. Along with thousands of others, Caskie fled to the coast and secured his passage on what was almost certainly the last boat out of occupied France when he experienced a call from his God, his heart, or his conscience - call it what you will - and he later recalled, "Suddenly I knew with utter certainty that God wanted me to stay in France."
In Marseilles, he found a new "congregation" in the masses of stranded British servicemen and opened a seamen’s mission, which doubled as a refuge for those escaping the Nazis. There was betrayal and Caskie moved on to Grenoble, teaching English at the university there while hiding hundreds of escapees in the vaults under the university church. On various occasions, speaking to former resistance fighters and others who knew the minister, Campbell tests Caskie’s claims, and finds them to be true.
In 1942 Caskie was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in a villa in Nice. He recalled scrawling his name and a biblical quote: "Fear not, for I am with thee, saith the Lord", on the wall. Campbell comes face to face with the graffiti, scrawled during that dark night of the soul as Caskie expected torture and death, some 60 years ago.
Eventually the minister was sentenced to death, but a German Lutheran pastor interceded for him, and he ended up in an internment camp.
After the war, there was his book, a film, and adulation. Ultimately, though, he ended his days alone, battling depression and ill health, as a paying guest in the Royal Scots Club in Edinburgh, and having to clear out any time his room was required by a bona fide member. "Going through his diaries in the National Library of Scotland," says Campbell, "I found myself almost in tears, because I was looking at page after page of addresses of cheap B & Bs in Edinburgh."
So rather than passing judgment on this man he didn’t think he liked, Campbell ends up pointing the finger at Scotland, and its Kirk, which distanced itself from Caskie once his usefulness was over. "I may be more politically in tune with the new Scotland than Donald would ever have been," says Campbell, "but I think he fulfilled the two prime commandments, which are to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. All the rest are very much on the margins of any judgment anyone makes on anyone else."
The Tartan Pimpernel screens on BBC2, tomorrow at 7pm.