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Saturday 1 June 2013

Werner Kissling and Calum Maclean

Of the many amateur photographers who has ever set foot in the Hebrides, Werner Kissling (or Kißling) (1895–1988) must represent one of the most skilful portraitists. His prolific photographic legacy is immensely important and rich. Kissling’s major strength lies in his ability to simply look and record. As a detached – though never uninterested – observer, a compositional style clearly stands out for Kissling lets his subjects, and even interiors and exterior landscapes speak for themselves.
Born near Born near Breslau in Silesia, formerly a part of the German Empire but now in Poland, into a wealthy, aristocratic brewing family, Kissling came to Britain in 1931. He served both in the army and the navy during the Great War, becoming a diplomat for the new Weimar Republic in 1919. The rise of the Nazi movement influenced his decision to resign from the German diplomatic service in 1931 to become a scholar and photographer. Developing links with Cambridge University, his privately funded study of ethnology enabled him to visit the Western Isles many times between the 1930s and the 1960s where the Hebridean blackhouse was of particular interest.
Dr Werner Freidrich Theodor Kissling first came to the Western Isles around 1934 and spent the summer of that year in Eriskay. As well as making a photographic record of the islanders’ traditional way of life, he also recorded film footage, subsequently cut into a documentary entitled Eriskay: A Poem of Remote Lives, for which he probably remains best remembered for.
During his time in Eriskay, Kissling spent part of time on a yacht called the Elspeth, leased from Greenock, and in a house rented from a local man called Ronald MacInnes. It is likely that he came to Eriskay in June of that year and did not leave until September. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, Kissling would return annually to Eriskay to stay in a house owned by a Mrs Johnston, but more so in Lochboisdale Hotel, South Uist, where he would always stay in the same room. When not in the Western Isles, Kissling would spend most of time in either London or Cambridge, where he would continue to study and socialise as was his wont.
Some fifteen years later, whilst Calum Maclean was resident in Benbecula and collecting a great deal of oral traditions there and in nearby South Uist, Kissling’s path naturally crossed at times with Maclean. Here for example is one of Maclean’s diary entries written in Scottish Gaelic but given here in translation:
Tuesday, 26 July 1949
Today I went over to Carnan as I had to meet Dr Kissling as we are going to look at an old blackhouse down at Ardamhachaire. There aren’t many left in Uist today. Duncan MacDonald came with us for he knows the folk in this house. It was a truly beautiful day by the time we got down. The folk of the house recognised Duncan for he had been working as a stonemason in this place a few years ago. Donald MacEachern, an old man, stayed in the house along with his two sisters. One of the sisters was ill and had taken to bed. It was a large blackhouse. It has been built twenty-seven years before. The hearth was in the middle of the floor and the chimney above. In the living room was a bench, dresser, chest and a table. There were another three rooms in the house. I measured the furniture in that room but I couldn’t measure the others for there was an old woman who was ill in the house. The folk of the house had built a new house that they were going move into soon. I thought that it was best for them to leave the blackhouse so they could go to the other house. The old man, Donald MacEachern, showed me work implements and I measured them. Dr Kissling was down about the shore so I didn’t see much of him at all. It was about seven o’clock in the evening when we left Big Donald’s house. The three of us went up to Creagorry and we had a drink there. Derick Thomson and I are going to see Duncan tomorrow. It was about nine o’clock in the evening by the time I got home and I was quite tired.
Again two years later when on his first fieldwork trip to Lochaber for the newly-established School of Scottish Studies, Maclean met Kissling. The diary entry is here given in translation:
Wednesday, 31 January 1951
I began transcribing this morning and worked on the material that I recorded from John MacDonald. Around midday, Dr Kissling came up to see me and he was here until around four o’clock this afternoon. After he left I resumed transcribing again until around seven o’clock this evening. I went up to Achluachrach to Archibald MacInness’s house. Archibald waited for me and he had recalled a few stories from the previous time I was here. I took down these stories as well as a few others I had heard the time I was here last.  Without a shadow of a doubt, he had a great store of knowledge that is worth taking down. He is a kind, fine fellow and his family is nice as well. Ewen MacIntosh was also here but I didn’t take anything down from him tonight. He has songs as well as stories. It was around ten o’clock at night when I left Achluachrach.
Between 1952 and 1961, Kissling worked on a part-time basis at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies as a writer and photographer. During these years he contributed many thousands of photographs, mostly of ethnographic interest such as those featuring crafts and traditional ways of life. He also collected material culture and artefacts for Dumfries Association of which he was made an Honorary Assistant from 1969 until the year of his death. Kissling also made many contributions to a range of journals, but his most important and celebrated scholarly work was a study of the Hebridean blackhouse, published during the Second World War.
NFC 1301: 12–14
NLS MS.29795, 1r–162v
Michael Russell, A Poem of Remote Lives: Images of Eriskay, 1934: The Enigma of Werner Kissling 1895–1988 (Glasgow: Neil Wilson, 1997) and A Different Country: The Photographs of Werner Kissling (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2002)
Kissling’s film Eriskay: A Poem of Remote Lives may be viewed here:

Dr Werner Kissling, Dumfries, c. 1985. Courtesy of Drumfries Museum

1 comment:

  1. fascinating reference to "The Elspeth" on which my father (a Minister from Greenock - McCallum Young) used to take us on summer holidays in the late 1940s