Peter Todd: “Remote Lives?”


..looking beyond the canon; The need for images that are local


Researching the Orcadian film maker Margaret Tait,[1] I wondered sometimes what other filmmakers had worked on Orkney or Shetland or in Northern Scotland generally. I was curious to see what images they had made, what sounds they had recorded, how they might be organised…

Margaret Tait, The Drift Back, 1956. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

Two strands of thought and research merged – a) film-makers based in, or who had filmed in, those places, b) an interest in poetry and film (specifically, a search for work that might become part of my touring programme Film Poems 4: Messages). Searching for film-makers on the internet two names came up, Jenny Gilbertson[2] and Werner Kissling[3], linked by their having works available on a single commercial VHS, twinning Gilbertson’s The Rugged Island – a Shetland Lyric (1934) with Kissling’s Eriskay – a Poem of Remote Lives (1935, the first film made in Gaelic).[4] The latter was of particular interest to me being of a length, 18 minutes, that would work better in a mixed programme. Similarly, using ‘poem’ as a key word in the British Film Institute’s SIFT database, one of the titles revealed was, again, Eriskay…[5]

A Centre

Tait – born on Orkney… returning regularly… before finally settling there again… Gilbertson going to live on Shetland (marrying the male lead in her film) and Kissling studying the Western Isles of Scotland for much of his life. To Kissling, Gilbertson and Tait, these places, these islands were not remote but were, in terms of ideas, emotions, and for long periods physically, both local and a centre.

Margaret Tait, Happy Bees, 1955. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

Kissling was a wealthy German aristocrat with an interest in photography, which had come from his mother who herself had visited the Western Isles in 1905. Biographer Michael W. Russell describes Kissling’s life from the 1930s, “following internment during the Second World War, he bought the King’s Arms hotel in Melrose and managed to have his mother brought over from Germany along with the considerable family fortune of £2m, on which they were to live until her death in 1961 and his inevitable impoverishment in the early 1960s. In 1968 he moved into a small flat in Dumfries and began helping out at the museum by collecting traditional artefacts.”[6]

Eriskay was Kissling’s only film. He did however pursue a number of other interests; trips to the Western Isles; extensive photographic documentation of the archipelago, relating in particular to his studies of the islanders’ unique form of habitation, the black house, as well as the recording of rural craft practices in Yorkshire and New Zealand.


The video has arrived from Glasgow. Seeing the film, I immediately know it will open my new programme. It begins with the arrival on the island, which frames not just Eriskay, but the whole selection. The sea and wool-gathering sequences will be reflected in works from Orkney and New Zealand respectively. The images of Eriskay – the portraits of its inhabitants and livelihoods – will shift, with later films in the programme, to works by those who are part of island communities. Blending in and out of the soundtrack, there are the sounds of the islanders’ Gaelic, for most audiences an unknown language, and songs sung and recorded later by the London Gaelic Choir. Following in my sequence will be London artist film-maker Guy Sherwin’s film without sound, Messages, about looking, learning and communication. Thus Eriskay opens dialogues, because it is a world being revealed. On each viewing we shall arrive on the island of Eriskay, as if for the first time.

Remembered Images

Screening Eriskay – a Poem of Remote Lives allows others to see this rarely-viewed work and some, having seen it, will programme it in different contexts. Others will remember its images filmed then, its sounds recorded then. Films seen live, somewhere in the memory, as a combination of sounds, images, feelings, dreams, waiting. Triggered by… they become active again… and so one feels and thinks and…


Originally published in Vertigo, Vol. 2, Issue 6 (Spring 2004).

[1] Margaret Tait (Born 11 November 1918, Kirkwall, Orkney; died 16 April 1999, Firth, Orkney).

[2] Jenny Gilbertson (nee Brown. Born 28 October 1902, Glasgow; died 8 January 1990, Shetland Isles); made several films of island life in the Shetlands, including her debut, A Crofter’s Life in Shetland in 1931, and also several films about the Inuit of Arctic Canada in the 1970s.

[3] Dr. Werner Friedrich Theodor Kissling (Born 11 April 1895, Heizendorf, near Breslau, Silesia, [then Germany, now Poland]; died 3 February 1988, Dumfries, Scotland).

[4] Eriskay – a Poem of Remote Lives & The Rugged Island – a Shetland Lyric, VHS from Scottish Screen Archive.

[5] Eriskay – a Poem of Remote Lives is currently touring in the single screen programme Film Poems 4: Messages.

[6] Kissling’s biography is A Poem of Remote Lives, by Michael W. Russell (Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 1997;

Peter Todd is a film maker and curator based in London. Todd has produced various projects that present and explore the work of Margaret Tait, including a major retrospective of Tait’s work at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (2004), and an international touring programme entitled Subjects and Sequences in partnership with LUX. The accompanying book Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader (LUX, 2004) was co-edited with Benjamin Cook (Director, LUX) and together they also produced a DVD of selected films by Tait. In 2002 Todd received Scottish Screen Exhibition Development Award funding for research on Margaret Tait with a view to preserving and making available her work. In 2006 he was funded by Pier Arts Centre, Stromness Orkney in regarding developing the collection to include work by Margaret Tait including 16mm prints and DVDs. Todd has presented Tait’s work at BAFICI Buenos Aires, MoMA New York, MIFF Mumbai, Tate Modern London, Pier Arts Centre Stromness and Portgower Village Hall Sutherland (with Sarah Neely) amongst others. In 2018 he curated the season Rhythm & Poetry; The Films of Margaret Tait at BFI Southbank London.