Backstage with King William and King James ahead of Scarva Sham Fight

GRAEME COUSINS travels to Scarva ahead of the annual Sham Fight to see what goes into putting on the event

Wednesday, 10th July 2019, 9:00 am
Colin Cairns (King James) with John Adair (King William). Picture by Arthur Allison.

Last Thursday evening when I visited Scarva I was able to drive through the village in less than a minute and the number of people I encountered I could have counted on one hand.

This Saturday it will be a drastically different story when the sleepy village will be bursting at the seams with people celebrating the Protestant culture.

The spectacle revolves around the famous Sham Fight between King William and King James, though having met the two men who play those roles it is hard to imagine them exchanging a cross word.

Scarva gets its moment of fame once every year on the 13th of July during the famous Sham Fight. Picture by Arthur Allison.

In fact the whole organising committee from Sir Knight Alfred Buller Memorial RBP 1000 could not be of a more laid back nature, yet they clearly have the get up and go to put on an event that consistently attracts 100,000 people to a village which rests in blissful slumbers for 364 days of the year.

The committee is steered by Sandy Heak, a giant man with a giant sense of humour, and other members present on the night included Worshipful Master Craig Adair as well as two members of royalty – John Adair (King William) and Colin Cairns (King James).

John, who has led the winning side in the Sham Fight for more than 30 years, and Colin, a more than affable loser, said they are looking forward to stepping out in a new uniform on Saturday, which the committee had tailored to mark RBP 1000’s centenary year.

The new outfits for William and James were stitched together by Chloe Robin, a tailoring business based in east Belfast which specialise in band uniforms.

Billy Austin's watercolour painting of the famous tree within Scarva Demesne

John said: “The new uniforms are actually more like the original uniforms that would have been worn for William’s dress uniform rather than his battle attire. The last ones had frills on them and maybe weren’t just as close to the real thing.

“The women who made them went to the Battle of the Boyne Centre and took photographs of the uniforms that were there and made them from that. They went all out to do it for us and have them ready for the Thirteenth.”

Colin, who I spoke to while he was transforming into the role of King James for some photos to go along with this article, said: “The uniforms are definitely a lot closer to the real thing than what we’d have used before. They’re a different fit compared to the other ones.

“We got the uniforms dedicated a few months ago. This is only the second time I’ve had it on.

Getting ready to rumble are John Adair (King William) and Colin Cairns (King James). Picture by Arthur Allison

“I’m looking forward to wearing them into battle for the first time.”

Given their strong friendship I asked how the two men got themselves into character before the Sham Fight, which this year promises some added pyrotechnics.

Sandy commented: “It’s like two boxers when the uniforms go on. You have to stand between the two of them to stop them having a go at each other.”

Colin gave an insight into the mentality of some of the crowd who throw themselves into the spirit of the Sham Fight: “There’s lot of booing and cheering. I laughed last year when I heard a woman say, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s not a bit of wonder he (James) never won, they’re making him fight with his left arm’.

The Orange arch welcoming visitors to Scarva. Picture by Arthur Allison.

“Well, you know I’m left-handed, I’ve always been left-handed. It’s funny the things people read into it.”

John said: “There is always a terrific response when we arrive at the battlefield on horseback. It will be another extremely tense battle, but I will certainly do my utmost to put King James to the sword once again.”

While the outcome is a foregone conclusion, it doesn’t stop the build-up being stressful for the men behind the event. Though you wouldn’t know to watch them joke around during our interview in Scarva Orange Hall.

Commenting on the organising committee, John said: “The group of people who are involved is small and there’s that bit of banter and camaraderie that keeps us all at it.”

Sandy said: “I know it’s a cliché, but literally once the Thirteenth is over you’re the next day you’re straight back into it.”

Worshipful Master Craig Adair added: “If something’s gone wrong it’s quickly brought up and we correct it. If something went really well we’ll note that. Every year you identify areas where you can improve.”

A King William stained glass window in Scarva Orange Hall. Picture by Arthur Allison

Craig, who along with his deputy Andrew Boyce, is one of the younger members of the committee, said: “It’s nice to be in the role of worshipful master for the centenary.

“When you walk out on the Thirteenth and see the crowds it’s all worth it.”

Asked what keeps people coming back to Scarva in great numbers, Sandy said: “I would say it’s a split thing between the Sham Fight and people who come to Scarva to see people they maybe only see once a year.

“There are people who will have their deck chairs in the same place every year.”

John said: “From a Royal Black perspective the central part would be the religious service. That is the key and central part of the day.

“Everybody will have their own wee slant of what they come for – the craic, the parade, the bands.

“There’s some of the top bands here. I was speaking to the band judge today and he says it’s getting harder and harder to judge every year.”

While much of the attention in Scarva on the Thirteenth is focused on events in the demesne, the village’s Orange Hall is worth a second look.

Scarva Orange Hall was built on land donated by MP Sir Henry Thompson in 1906, who added a rather strange caveat to the offer of an additional £500.

Former worshipful master of RBP 1000 Sandy Heak said: “£500 would have been a lot of money at that time, but it came with a stipulation that the hall had to be built in the style of Hampton Court Palace in London.”

He added: “As you can see from the two towers, they made a good job of making a smaller version.

“It’s unlike any other Orange Hall you’ll see.”

Behind the Orange Hall lies Scarva Demesne which has historic links to King William of Orange, who tied his horse to a chestnut tree as his troops rested there on the way to the Battle of the Boyne.

Sandy said: “When King William was here legend has it that a local man named Reilly brought him food and as a reward he was told whatever land he could plant oak trees around was his. That turned out to be the demesne as it is today.”

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Painting immortalises the Scarva tree where King William rested

According to Sandy the Sham Fight has been taking place in Scarva for more than 200 years but it originally was a re-enactment of a fight between two local factions rather than Kings William and James.

He said Tandragee District Orange ran the Sham Fight up until about 1920 before it transitioned to the Royal Black.

Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Institution, Rev William Anderson, said: “The Sham Fight is a truly wonderful family occasion. It’s a lot of people in a small place. I think that’s what makes it unique, that it’s not spread out over a big area, like the Twelfth for example where there are lots of different venues.

“There’s a uniqueness to going up that avenue, whether you’re coming to Scarva for the first time or you’re as old as me.”

David Livingstone, County Armagh Grand Master and Imperial Grand Treasurer, said: “People who have seen it before want to see it again. People who have never seen want to see it for the first time.

“They know the result but it’s about the pageantry.”

The annual clash between King William and King James and the large-scale procession through Scarva is now firmly established as a major tourist and family attraction.

It is hosted by Sir Knight Alfred Buller Memorial RBP 1000 which celebrates its centenary this year.

The Sham Fight will be preceded by a large parade at 11.15am, with up to 90 preceptories and as many bands taking part in the procession through the village to the demesne.

Approximately 4,000 members of the Royal Black Institution will step out, accompanied by a wide selection of music, including flute, pipe, accordion and brass bands.

To mark its centenary, members of RBP 1000 will be given the honour of leading the main parade, accompanied by Sir Henry Inglesby Fife and Drum.

An adjoining cultural field will showcase musical entertainment, highland dancing, historical displays, and other activities for the many visitors to enjoy throughout the day.

The Sham Fight will take place at 1.30pm, prior to the religious service, which is scheduled to get under way at 2pm.

The return parade is due to leave the demesne at 3pm.

Scarva Orange Hall is built in the image of Hampton Court Palace. Picture by Arthur Allison
John Adair and Craig Adair with the new uniforms. Picture by Arthur Allison