Voices Of The Bay

A Scottish Native Brings the Sound of the Old Country to Bristol

"It is a universal language. You can immediately connect and start playing in a session with someone who knows an Irish or Scottish tune."

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Stop by Aidan’s Pub in Bristol on a late Sunday afternoon and you will likely hear John Forrest letting go on his fiddle. A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, the long time Bristol resident started the weekly Sunday session back in 1992. Single dad of two grown daughters Rachel and Katerina, John is a wood worker by trade who splits his day between O&G Studio (formerly Warren Chair Works) and his own Forrest Woodworks where he specializes in custom designed furniture and repair and offers a line of cremation boxes. He feeds his musical soul also playing at Buskers in Newport and during the summer at the County Cork Pub in Warwick. Available for private celebrations and weddings, John can be reached the good old-fashioned way on his landline at 253-0077.

When I was young my family immigrated to Australia and my dad would play Scottish music on the reel to reel and we all felt connected to home. No one in my family played an instrument. So I took violin lessons because I was keen on learning the music of home. We eventually returned to Scotland and I got very serious with my lessons. I played two years with an orchestra. Not long after, I traveled throughout Ireland and Europe playing my fiddle in the streets and pubs.

Irish and Scottish music are very similar with their influences because they are both Celtic nations. They have the same type of instruments. The biggest difference is the bagpipe. The Scottish bagpipe you play blowing the pipes standing up so it was an instrument used for marching into war. With the Irish bagpipes, which is called the Uilleann pipes, the air is blown into the bellows which are strapped to your elbow and waist. You need to sit down when you play, so it has long been an instrument for dance music. I no longer play the Uilleann pipes. I sold them to come to America in 1984.

I play everything from fiddle, violin, viola, cello, mandolin, Portuguese guitarra, button melodeon, tenor banjo to name a few. They each have a special quality and meaning. I love to let go on the fiddle. What I love about Scottish and Irish music is you can be anywhere in the world and it is a universal language. You can immediately connect and start playing in a session with someone who knows an Irish or Scottish tune.

A pub session is not meant to be a formal performance. Back home in Scotland and Ireland you would never clap after a song because the musicians are playing for themselves as much as they are for the people in the pub. The most requested song is the Irish Rover, which has been played to death. Fellow musicians will usually request from me a slow lament or a wild reel, my two favorites to play. The best audience is one which responds to the music when they dance or cry.

This year March 15, the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day will be very special to me. It will be the first time I won’t be playing along with my good friend Hughie Purcell and his wife Ger from Barrington. Hughie passed away in November. He was a huge influence on me. He had raw power and poignant emotion to his playing and that is the way I like to play. I first met Hughie and his talented wife Ger back in 1995.

For me St. Patrick’s Day is a day to celebrate St. Patrick who was born in Scotland, 65 miles from my hometown, and the music that I love. St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. I only wish he had banished the unicorns. It is the one song I refuse to play. St. Patrick’s Day is about the real music of Ireland.