Periwig (The)

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PERIWIG, THE (A' Phiorbhuic). AKA - "Briogan Seambo," "Fry'd Periwig,” "Perriwig (The)," “Pirriwig (The)." Scottish, Canadian; Pipe Reel. Canada, Cape Breton. E Minor. Standard tuning (fiddle). AB (Surenne): AAB (Fraser). 'Periwig' is a corrupt form of the French word perruque, which itself stems from the Latin word pilus, or hair. The wigs came into fashion probably due to the French monarch Louis XIV, who had long curled locks much admired when he was young, but who became increasingly bald early. When Louis started wearing a wig they immediately became status symbols of one’s importance in the French court, and the fashion quickly spread to other countries. In 1655 Louis appointed 48 wig-makers, and the first wig-makers guild was established in Paris the next year. Wigs were not cheap due to the relative scarcity of quality materials and high demand, and there were periodic concerns about dubious origins of raw materials. In England during the Great Plague of 1665 and 1666, there were even rumors that the hair of plague victims was used in the wigs' manufacture. Upon the death of Louis in 1715 the fashion for large, elaborate periwigs began to wane, and by 1720 shorter, smaller wigs were to be seen. Apropos of Fraser’s story below, the wearing of wigs was adopted by the clergy only some 20 years after coming into fashion with the laity, as they were initially seen as worldly and vain. Come they did, however, and periwigs stayed in fashion with clergy again some 20 years longer than with the laity, who had adopted the smaller wigs of the 18th century.

By the beginning of the 19th century the fashion for wigs in Britain was over, save for a few conservative circles. Henry Cockburn (1779-1854), writing in his book Memorials of His Time (published posthumously in 1856), writes of older Scots gentry of the era and their wariness of fashions that might appear disloyal:

In nothing was the monarchical principle more openly displayed or insulted than in the adherence to, or contempt of, hair-powder. The reason of this was, that this powder, and the consequent enlargement and complexity of the hair on which it was displayed, were not merely the long-established badges of aristocracy, but that short and undressed crops had been adopted in France. Our loyal, therefore, though beginning to tire of the greasy and dusty dirt, laid it on with profuse patriotism, while the discontented exhibited themselves ostentatiously in all the Jacobinism of clean natural locks. ... (Cockburn, p. 62)

Captain Simon Fraser, in his note on the tune, suggests the notion that wigs were becoming old-fashioned even in the Highlands at the end of the 18th century.

Whether the subject matter of this air was a real or imaginary periwig, the editor is not prepared to assert; but so popular was it, as sung by the gentlemen mentioned in the prospectus, that a roar of laughter succeeded each verse, infinitely longer than any verse of the song, in every company where they were prevailed upon to attempt it. An anecdote told of Mr. Fraser of Culduthel, renders it probable that he was the composer of this beautiful sprightly air. He was at a baptismal entertainment at the editor's grandfather's, where the presence of the them minister of Boleskine, a very old and venerable clergyman, could not restrain his propensity for exciting mirth. He sat next but one to the minister, and found means, over his neighbor's shoulder, to tickle below the parson's large wig with a long feather, or blade of corn, or some such thing. As the glass went round, the old man got very uneasy, but suspected nobody; he at last got up in a rage, dreading an earwig or spider had got into his wig, and shook it over the blazing fire, but unfortunately lost his hold of it. It was too fat to admit of salvation; and with the immoderate laugh excited, it remained frying there, till it had almost suffocated the company, whilst the minister's bald pate produced a second laugh at his expense, in which he partook with the greatest good humor, and enjoyed it more when told how it happened. The real name of the air is the 'Fry'd Periwig', rendering this its probable origin; but the song turns it into a thousand ideal shapes, which nobody could better delineate than the adept who thus gave it the first celebrity,

The tune appears in Stewart-Robertson's Athole Collection as "Pirriwig (The)." A pipe version was published in Donald MacDonald's Collection of Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels & Jigs (1828). See also the 1st tune in Robin Williamson's "Greensleeves" medley, which he thinks is similar.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Fraser (The Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles), 1816; No. 74, p. 27. Laybourn (Köhlers' Violin Repository Book 2), 1881-1885; p. 191. Surenne (Dance Music of Scotland), 1852; p. 121. Stewart-Robertson (The Athole Collection), 1884; p. 261.

Recorded sources: Maggies’s Music MM220, Hesperus – “Celtic Roots.”

See also listings at:
Alan Snyder’s Cape Breton Fiddle Recording Index [1]




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