Loyalist and Republican bands march to very different tunes, so how did Roddy Buchanan splice the two sides of the sectarian divide?

FROM half-way up the stairs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, you might catch the strains of a marching band. It might be a Loyalist flute band playing The Clansmen, or, if you pass a few minutes later, a Republican band playing Patriot Game. Hearing either in an art gallery is surprising. Hearing both coming from the same room seems inconceivable.

Roddy Buchanan’s project Legacy, unveiled this week in Scotland for the first time, is remarkable for a variety of reasons. For several years, Buchanan has worked with two Glasgow-based marching bands, the Black Skull Band Corps of Fife & Drum and Parkhead Republican Flute Band, in order to create portraits of two communities in Scotland destined never to meet.

Yet, here they do meet – almost. There are two sets of photographic portraits, two publications, two films with the sound alternating on a “pendulum edit”: when one band is marching, the sound on the other film is silent. It is possible – as both bands requested – to watch each film independently, but stand a way back and you can see both: separate but interweaving, decisively different yet with striking similarities. Nicola Kalinsky, interim director of the SNPG, has called it “a complex and multi-faceted portrait of a challenging subject”.

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“You can elect to look only at your own community,” says Buchanan, talking over the sound of flutes and drums. “I don’t think people should be forced to engage with the other community. Their own community is a rich enough story to investigate. I’m not looking to make an ebony and ivory exhibition, it’s not Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, it’s much more about trying to give an expression of an identity that is often presented as a bit two-dimensional.”

It’s a complex project, but Buchanan’s integrity and diplomacy have paid dividends. He first worked with the bands in a commission for Glasgow City Council’s Blind Faith project on sectarianism which was shown at GoMA in 2008. The approach was similar, and both bands were pleased with the result, which was widely praised. When Buchanan was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to make a work about the legacy of the Troubles, an increased budget allowed him to film both bands “in action”, Black Skull at the 320th anniversary of the ­lifting of the siege of (London)Derry in 2009, and Parkhead at the annual parade to commemorate the Easter Rising in the same city the following year.

“The minefield of Derry/Londonderry is still a very difficult mouthful to get round in relation to this story,” he says. “I tend to say ‘Londonderry’ with the Loyalists and ‘Derry’ with the Republican communities because that’s the terminology they use. I have to accept that tension, because many people contain that tension within themselves.”

It’s a tension he was familiar with. Growing up working-class and football-mad in the west of Scotland, he could hardly ignore the lines of sectarian division. But he only became aware of the subtleties involved when he met his wife, the artist Jackie Donachie. “We are in what is euphemistically called a mixed marriage,” he grins. “There are all sorts of nuances and etiquette associated with being in mixed company which are really only highlighted when someone from the other community comes into your family. When you’ve been through art school and examined everything, it’s a big deal to realise that some of your own identity isn’t culturally neutral.”

He is painstakingly even-handed in the way he talks about the bands: when he mentions one, he almost always mentions the other. The Loyalist portraits were nearest the entrance when the work was shown at the Imperial War Museum last year, this time it’s the other way round. “Parity of esteem is such a watchword of the post-Good Friday agreement, it’s something I want very much to keep in mind. But it’s also El Dorado, it doesn’t really play out like that. I don’t like the idea of two photographs being set one against another, with one band looking at the other band.”

He worked with each band separately, always being clear that whatever he did with one band, he would also do with the other. But each was chiefly concerned with how their own band was represented. When members of both bands attended the opening of the original work in Glasgow, each watched their own film, ignoring the other, and got on with teasing their own bandmates.

As an artist, Buchanan is probably still best known for Gobstopper, his film of children holding their breath in the Clyde Tunnel, which won the inaugural Beck’s Futures Prize in 2000. His work has often touched on themes of childhood, working-class identity and sport, but in this project he seems to have hit on a subject which draws together his interests, his gifts for persuasion and friendship, and his skills as a film-maker.

A keystone of his socially-engaged art practice is to offer his subjects the chance to take control of how they are represented. The two bands worked with him to approve the edit of the films and the content of the books. “The bands are often painted into a corner about their own identity. They’ve been tripped up many times by journalists. Developing a track record with them was very important, letting them know that I wasn’t there to trip anyone up, and that I wanted them to have a say in how they were represented.

“The key thing for them was how they are represented within their own community. That’s how they could be tripped up in working with me. They wanted it to be clear that they weren’t working with the other band. When they said things like, ‘Roddy, why did you cut it like that?’ I would be confident of having a tussle with them about that, but if somebody was wearing a belt buckle that had the wrong insignia on it and they wanted to take that shot out, I would agree, because I wanted them to be happy with how they presented themselves.”

Buchanan says he wanted to tell a story about an aspect of Scottish life which – outside of the parading season – is almost unseen, one which many would rather sweep under the carpet. Former First Minister Jack McConnell once described sectarianism as “Scotland’s secret shame”.

Yet the bands are growing, perhaps as the paramilitary organisations decline and people look for new ways to express their identity. More than 100 bands take part in the annual Relief of Derry Parade, for example.

“My attraction to working with these communities was a recognition that this was an expression of working-class identity. It often seems to be distasteful to a middle-class agenda; people would like them just to go away. There is a big taboo associated with the bands, it is tacitly understood by many people as something we would want to get rid of. There is a veil drawn over it as if [since the Good Friday Agreement] that’s all done and dusted, let’s move on.

“I probably brought that anxiety to the table, but was then thrilled and impressed by the level of engagement that each of the bands showed towards what I was doing, and also in their exploration of their own identity. The bandsmen have thought a lot about where they stand.”

Everything is more complex than it seems, he says, introducing me to the portraits at the exhibition: a father and a son, a man with a scooter addiction, who’s friends with whom, who gets teased and why. In the bands, politics is a matter of personal conscience: there is a wide spectrum of opinion, and a high degree of independence from other Loyalist and Republican structures. One of the band leaders said succinctly in an interview with Buchanan: “Religion really has nothing to do with it.”

Buchanan adds: “One of the bandsmen used to be a serious rugby player; he would say the experience of being in a band is culturally neutral, like being in a rugby club. For some people this is an expression of Republican or Loyalist identity. For others it is absolutely about preserving musical tradition. Their story is not monolithic, there are hawks and doves within both. The work makes it more complicated rather than less complicated, and the complexity is what is interesting.”

At the same time, the work acknowledges a living relationship between Scotland and Ireland, and a sense that a long history can’t be wiped out in the name of progress, that nothing is as simple as it might first appear. “It’s not a historical story, it’s very present in my life, their lives, many people’s lives,” says Buchanan. “This is a Scottish story, and that’s why it’s important that it’s in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I was interested in people in my own country talking about their identity – and that story is as nuanced and as full and as real as anybody else’s story.” «

• Legacy, by Roddy Buchanan, is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh until 16 September