Biography of 'KISSLING, Werner'

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Ethnologist, film maker, photographer

Born: Silesia 1895
Died: Dumfries 1988

Werner Kissling was the third son born of a wealthy, aristocratic brewing family. 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 1928 and the 1960s where the Hebridean blackhouse was of particular interest.

He spent the summer of 1934 on the island of Eriskay where as well as taking many photographs he made the first ever film using the Gaelic language. Eriskay: A Poem of Remote Lives (1935) [see ref 1701] was shot on a 35mm film camera and drew inspiration from Robert Flaherty’s pioneering documentary ‘Man of Aran’. He recorded various scenes of traditional island life, later edited into a twenty minute black and white film. Studio sound was added, featuring songs by the London Gaelic Choir and sections of Gaelic conversation probably recorded on the island by Kissling the previous summer.

As a former German diplomat, Kissling was interned in the Tower of London and on the Isle of Man (1939 - 1942), although only feeling antipathy towards the Nazis and having been involved with the prosecution of Hitler. One of his two brothers was later executed as one of the plotters in the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944. That same year Kissling had his mother Johanna smuggled out of Germany with his family fortune of about £2m, which he was to squander by about the time of her death in 1961. This was due largely to the disastrous purchase of a hotel in Melrose.

In 1968 the impoverished Kissling moved to Dumfries where he collected traditional artefacts for the local museum. He only made one film but remained a keen still photographer until he was almost ninety, recording many traditional rural crafts and ways of life in diverse settings. He also sold many photographs and negatives during his last 30 years of life with many examples of his work held in various collections. He was an extremely private man who wished no public recognition for himself or his work while he was alive. He died in 1988, never having returned to his native Germany. His gravestone is inscribed with the words: SOLDIER, DIPLOMAT, SCHOLAR, GENTLEMAN

Researcher: Kevin Mackay

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A study of Eriskay's crofting life, filmed by Dr. Kissling during a sailing holiday.

Full length video available