Sham Fight won me over with its laid-back charm
On her first trip to the historical re-enactment in Scarva, Una Brankin finds out why so many rural people find the event unmissable
King Billy may have thought he was star of the show at Scarva yesterday, but there was someone else receiving even more admiring salutes.
It is someone who, as a woman, is not permitted to join the Royal Black Institution (RBI), which organises the annual Sham Fight, an enjoyable re-enactment of the King William and King James clash at the Battle of the Boyne.
But it is also someone who has quietly done more for the RBI's traditions than anyone else in recent years.
In recognition of her past successful efforts to secure tourism funding for the event, a glowing Arlene Foster was given pride of place in front of Scarvagh House for the morning's procession by thousands of RBI members and accompanying bands, celebrating the 325th anniversary of the Williamite victory.
In contrast to the swathes of starched black suits, the Finance Minister sparkled in a silvery ensemble. Tall and tanned, she's charismatic and evidently popular, given the smiles and waves directed her way throughout the hour-and-a-half long march.
"It's such a lovely day, there are no police needed, as you can see," she remarked when I mentioned I was a newcomer to the event.
"Families come and meet up with aunties and so on - it's a bit of an annual reunion. I met a constituent of mine from Tyrone who has been here since 7.40am and I just ran into a girl I'd been to university with."
Arlene was accompanied by her children Sarah (15), George (13) and Ben (8), her elder sister, Julie, and friend Rhona McAlpine.
"The kids are running about somewhere - they're allowed burgers and stuff today," she smiled. "I've been coming since my twenties; I go the to demesne every year but you should take a good walk about. It's a very enjoyable day."
A member of the Rosslea accordion band until recently - she loves music and has twice been a wedding singer - Arlene's foot could be seen tapping along to some of the more jaunty, American gospel numbers performed by the stream of dignified bands.
The popular non-denominational hymns Abide With Me and Nearer My God To Thee had several renditions by brass, accordion and pipes, all beautifully played by immaculate musicians of all ages - and even a few glamorous ladies.
"There might even be the odd Catholic member in the bands that are brought in for the day, you never know," observed a retired RBI man I met in the front courtyard of the quite grand Scarvagh House.
Would there be any, I wondered, among the crowds in the field or village?
"I'd be surprised if there weren't," he said. "The rural Orange and Black orders are very different to the Belfast ones. In Belfast, it's more working class, and the two sides are mostly based in ghettoes that don't mix. Here, they live on neighbouring farms and shop in each other's stores.
"The rural bands don't play at all going past Catholic churches and you won't see the like of the carry-on in Ardoyne or Twaddell here."
It was a surreal scene at times; an enormous 'Terminator' carnival ride flung well-strapped-in thrill-seekers through the air, in the field in front of Scarvagh House, while gleaming military bands passed by sedately (they've got the best postures).
Thoroughly enjoying the spectacle was Alfie Buller, the jovial owner of Scarvagh House, while his wife, Vina, was inside making lunch for the VIPs, including Mrs Foster, the Sovereign Grand Master Millar Farr, and the RBI's Provincial Grand Master of Ontario West, Michael Thomas.
"We're always looking to improve these events," said Mr Farr. "Anyone participating has to have permission to do so, but everyone is welcome to come along, as long as they come to enjoy themselves."
The tall and ruddy Alfie Buller agreed.
"It's a very odd day - a big folk day," said Alfie, who runs a stud farm on the estate. "It's a bit like the horsey scene - it doesn't matter about religious differences here.
"Of course there are boisterous ones in the trees but I had a word with them and they've been as good as gold."
As I'd parked near the trees Mr Buller mentioned, at the back of the demesne field, I can confirm that any high jinks were confined to good natured wrestling by band-members in the grass and the odd banging drum - not, thankfully, Lambegs. The percussion at Scarva is a much more muffled affair, played out on mostly see-through drums, far more tuneful than the foreboding, tribal versions.
Joanne Schuett, an American tourist I met at the stalls, was full of praise for the musical aspect of the day, but critical of the previous day's proceedings in west and north Belfast.
"I'm glad your marching bands don't have those god-awful cheerleading girls that we get," she said.
"The girl members in your bands can play instruments. It's so nice to see such a dignified parade, that starts and ends with a religious meeting. It wasn't like that in Belfast - this is so laid-back compared to that. We didn't like the vibe there at all."
Indeed it was. There were a few PSNI officers - in male and female pairs - strolling about the estate, but they were in their short shirt-sleeves rather than space-age defence gear, and not being called upon for anything, as far as I could see, apart from directions. In contrast, the Scarvagh House Stud handlers - including Alfie Buller's sister Hylda - were being kept busy, escorting King Billy's mighty white steed and his enemy's shorter chestnut mare, and their two assistants' horses, back and forth across the field.
The sight of the horses sent a flurry of excitement through the crowd - estimated at 20,000 at the demesne; with a further 80,000 in and around Scarva village - and a swift movement en masse to the stage at the top of the sloping field.
Inexplicably, the Robbie Williams hit Candy was blasting out from the speakers, accompanied by two young boys battering mini drums.
"We've moved on a lot!" explained a good-looking Royal Black Preceptory (RBP) 1000 member, side-stage. But it was back to yesteryear for the headline act of the day.
Local RBP men John Adair and Brian Johnston are not much into method acting, and they probably amuse themselves as much as their cheering audience, but they put on a good (if speedy) show as King William and his Catholic nemesis.
I'd expected some pantomime booing at King James, but heard none. In fact, I could hardly hear anything above the buck-shots and booms.
I'd ended up in the middle of the scorched 'battle' ground, having been called upon to fetch a copy of the Belfast Telegraph for the Kings, who hadn't yet seen themselves spread across our feature pages yesterday.
After posing for us once again, they headed off to the big house for the official lunch. I made for the Tartaraghan Presbyterian Church Tent for tea, ham sandwiches and a madeira bun. The meal was gratefully received and graciously served by volunteers, who told me I'd have to come back next year and bring my mother, who likes marching tunes. I think it's a date.
Result of Sham Fight never in doubt, nor was the hospitality