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For kings and country: King Billy and King James get ready to do battle at the Sham Fight at Scarva

Once again King Billy and King James will do battle today at Scarva, with few expecting a surprise outcome. John Adair and Brian Johnston, who play the rival monarchs, tell Una Brankin what it takes to act out their royal roles and how the Sham Fight is proving a huge draw to tourists.

Published 14/07/2015

Old foes: John Adair (left) as King Billy with Brian Johnston as King James
Old foes: John Adair (left) as King Billy with Brian Johnston as King James
John Adair with wife Elizabeth
Brian Johnston and his partner Hylda Mills
The Sham Fight at Scarva which attracts tourists from across the world

It has a very predictable result but the Royal Black Preceptory's Sham Fight at Scarva continues to attract up to 100,000 every year, mostly families having a fun day out.

And among the 4,000 members of the Royal Black Institution on parade today are John Adair and Brian Johnston, both members of the local RBP 1000 - and both home-bred superstars for the day.

The pair take a jovial approach to their re-enactment of the Battle of the Boyne, as the troops of King Billy - played by John - trounce those of King James, played by Brian, at the scenic Scarva House demesne.

While Brian's a newcomer to his role, John has made a handsome King Billy for two decades, and has no plans to retire just yet. A part-time sheep farmer, he lives in Clare, near Tandragee, with his wife Elizabeth, who helps him organise the trade stands and stalls at the colourful event.

'We've never made it political, that's why we get 100,000 every year'

John says:

I didn't need sword-fighting lessons to play King William - it all came naturally! They're real swords but fairly lightweight. I always win the fight, but I try not to be too hard on King James. There's been nobody hurt so far - they're always able to walk away in one piece.

We got our wigs made specially in 1990 - I still have my own hair under my one. I do feel I'm getting too old for this sort of carry-on, but I'll still do it another while. I was a foot soldier at the fight when I was younger. I got promoted to King William in 1995 and it's got bigger and bigger every year.

We've never had provocative flags flying, like those on that Carrickfergus bonfire, and there's never any tension. It really is a family day out and anybody can come. We've had councillors from Louth and Ballyjamesduff and they really enjoyed it. We've never made it political. I think that's why we can get between 80,000 and 100,000 coming every year.

We don't ban alcohol and we can't stop anyone from taking it in, but we've never had any problems with drunkenness. There's up to 30 of us in the RBP involved in organising the day, so it's very well-run.

It's an early start for me. I get down to the field for about 5.30am or 6am to check everything's in place. We're having RBP and Ulster Scots display marquees for the first time this year, plus Ulster Scots groups are performing from 9.45am-11.30am. We've also got a big screen in the village so everybody can see the action. People get up early and line their deckchairs along the route to watch the parade.

I've met people who have flown in from abroad for one reason only, to see the Sham Fight. And I've run into others afterwards who have been very disappointed to miss it. Most of them know a bit about the history and culture.

The day is great for local business and hotels, and it's good fun for us taking part, with all the pageantry. I've got soaked many a time but haven't been struck by lightning yet. We have had one or two badly behaved horses over the years and the odd problem with flags dropping off, but no major mishaps.

We'd like to take the event to an even more professional level in the next few years, with the help of the tourist board. I'd like to see world leaders invited - Bill and Hillary Clinton would be great as guests. I'll have to get a number for the White House.

I don't do any other acting, though. I don't think I'd make it in Hollywood! It's a tiring enough day - you're ready for your bed when you get home."

'We're kind of treated like stars on the day'

Brian Johnston (50) took over as King James for the Sham Fight last year. An experienced horseman, he works at Scarvagh House Stud and lives in Scarva with his partner Hylda Mills, daughter of the late Alfred Buller of Scarvagh House. Brian says:

I was the assistant for years to the old King James, Colin Cairns, so I knew all the moves off by heart when I was promoted last year. We've done the fight in all weathers - there was one year the rain fell so hard, the water was running out of us and the green dye from my coat seeped into my skin. I had to give myself a good scrub to get it out.

We're kind of treated like stars on the day. Everybody knows us and we have to pose for plenty of photos. There have been a few who get a bit carried away with the sight of the green uniform and you get a bit of stick, but there's never any bother. It's a totally different day out to the Twelfth - it's very laid-back and everybody from the wider community is welcome.

There's no tension or hostility, and kids - as long as they know where the car's parked - can run off and do what they like, without coming to any harm. It's a very well run event and there are plenty of stewards on hand.

We've been getting more tourists over the years - Chinese, Americans, from all over. We all really enjoy the day; it's good craic. Of course, I never win the fight, but I don't get hurt, even though we use real swords.

I've had no real disasters over the years, but if there's a cranky horse, I'll get him. I'm used to working with thoroughbreds at the stud, but we couldn't use them in the field. We hire four ordinary ones for the day for about £300, from Lime Park Riding School, in Magheralin.

They're only used for half an hour but by the time you lift them and leave them back, it takes the whole day. We take them down for a hack to let them see the whole thing before it starts.

It's a bit of a family affair for us. Scarvagh House is my partner Hylda's home place and I've worked for her brother for years. It's great to see the crowds getting bigger every year as well as having the backing of the Tourist Board. And everybody's welcome, no matter who they are or where they're from."

Clash of tradition and spectacle

  • At one time Ireland boasted half a dozen Sham Fights. One of the most famous was in the west Cork town of Bandon, once a Protestant stronghold, and as far back as 1825, local newspapers reported on fights that were part of Orange celebrations in Altnaveigh, Poyntzpass, Newtownhamilton, Tandragee, Portadown and Markethill.
  • Scarva alone has kept up the tradition - only war-time brought the celebrations to a temporary standstill, and even between the years of 1940 and 1944 a handful of locals in the Royal Black Institution walked the processional route.
  • The lively event is now established as one of the major events on the Northern Ireland cultural and tourism calendar.
  • The annual clash between King William and King James and the procession through the village attracts between 80,000 and 100,000 people.
  • This year funding has been secured from the Department of Trade and Enterprise/Tourism Northern Ireland, the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council, and the Ulster Scots Agency.
  • The extra funding this year will be used to provide more stewards, who will help manage the massive crowds attending.
  • Video screens and other stage equipment will be provided for people to enjoy the day and a special marquee will be set up to allow visitors to understand the history of the Royal Black Institution and the Sham Fight.
  • The Chairman of The Royal 13th, and WM of RBP 1000, Sandy Heak, says: "We have been working very hard over the past few years to develop the Sham Fight. This year we have been able to secure extra funding and that will definitely make our job easier. Our aim is to make the Sham Fight a 'must see' event and to ensure that everyone who takes part or comes along as a spectator enjoys their day. The support of these bodies will help develop the professionalism of the event and raise it to a new level."
  • The procession leaves the assembly field on the Gilford Road at 11.30am this morning. More than 90 preceptories of the Royal Black Institution will take part in the procession, joined by a wide range of bands to suit all tastes. Tens of thousands of people will line the one mile route to the Demesne at the Loughbrickland end of the village. Tandragee District will lead the procession.
  • Earlier in the day, at 9.45am, members of Scarva Royal Black Preceptory will lay a wreath at the village memorial for local members of the security forces murdered in the Troubles
  • A religious service, conducted by Rev John Batchelor, County Grand Chaplain of Armagh, will be held at 2pm.
  • Following the service, the principal speaker at a public meeting will be the Sovereign Grand Master, Millar Farr.

Belfast Telegraph

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