Thwarting US border guards on high alert for “ivory” bagpipes.

Bob Fillies (on rt) with other participants in AHG Reunion Pipe Band. (Bob is playing John Walsh's full silver pipes.)
Bob Gillies (on rt) with other participants in AHG Reunion Pipe Band. (Bob is playing John Walsh’s full silver pipes.)

Bob Gillies classic bagpipes are safe and sound – and back in British Columbia.

In the fall of 2013, retiree Bob and his wife took a leave of absence from the Delta Police Pipe Band.  They packed their RV for a long journey and as usual, Bob tossed in his pipes for their yearlong adventure. The Gillies travelled from BC to Mexico last winter, then up to the Canadian Maritimes in the early summer. Bob plans call for a return to the US during the cold Canadian winter before heading back home to BC next year. His wife and RV are still with him. His Starck bagpipes? Well, today they are a continent away.

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Bob Gillies prior to massed bands at the 2014 Antigonish Highland Games

Bob is a piper in the Delta Police Pipe Band. His travels took him to Nova Scotia in July and fortunately his visit coincided with the Antigonish Highland Games Reunion Pipe Band that I have organized the past two years – a “flash mob” pipe band that gathers the evening before the Antigonish Highland Games street parade, then hits the street for a one-time performance for one of the most bagpipe-appreciative crowds in North America. The event allows any local or visiting piper or drummer who is not part of a band to take part in the oldest continuous Highland Games outside of Scotland and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow pipers at the historic games in a culturally rich part of the country. Like pipers around the world, much of that camaraderie is practiced in the beer tent, which is where I had an opportunity to chat with Bob about his travels.

Over some cold Alexander Keiths, I inquired if his pipes contained any ivory. As most pipers know by now, there has been a clampdown by US border guards on any product or material that contains ivory crossing international borders.  The admirable intention of the clampdown is to try and stem the terrible trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn that is causing irreparable harm to some of this world’s most majestic creatures.  Recently, US border guards have been implementing that country’s prohibition against carrying ivory across borders. In a well publicized case in July, two Vermont teenagers had their prize pipes seized after returning home from the Montreal Highland Games. One of the sets is a 1936 silver and ivory Robertson which belonged to the boy’s father when he was the sovereign piper to Queen Elizabeth II.  Under US law it is prohibited to import any ivory taken after 1976.  The two boys had documentation proving the age of their pipes, but it made little difference to the northern border guards. The border crossing was not a “designated” crossing that accepts the documents, so the teens were ordered to pay fees totalling $576 to carry their pipes across the border.  The boys couldn’t afford the outrageous fee and their pipes were confiscated. After a huge outcry in the media, politicians got involved and the boys got their pipes back. The scare, however, sent a shudder through the global piping community, where ivory is practically a standard feature on older, classic pipes.

Back in the Antigonish beer tent, Bob answered that his pipes did indeed have ivory on them, but he’s never had a problem at the border.  I said he was welcome to try crossing the border again but was it a risk he was willing to take? After a couple of weeks of deliberation, and given the often arbitrary decisions of US border guards, the evidence of bureaucratic red-tape surrounding proper documentation and designated border crossings, Bob wisely decided to leave his pipes behind and not tempt fate. Two teenage American boys might be able to muster public support to get their pipes back. A Canadian transporting ivory across an international border? Maybe not. And the pipes in question are worth special consideration.

Bob Gillies 1880 "Starck" bagpipes.
Bob Gillies 1880 “Starck” bagpipes.

Bob’s bagpipes are a classic, 130 year old Henry Starck pipe. Made in London, England in the late 19th century, they have the classic Starck look to the ivory mounts and a beautiful, solid sound from each of the three drones. Starck’s motto was “Only the best is good enough” and that attention to detail is evident in Bob’s pipes. Matched with a modern McCallum chanter, they are a joy to play. With the Vermont episode still fresh, I provided Bob with an alternative. He could leave his pipes behind in Antigonish with John Walsh, and I would pick up the pipes in August on a return trip to Nova Scotia. After some deliberation, Bob decided not to take his chances at the border and the arbitrary whims of a bored guard. He would leave his pipes behind and continue on his voyage, sans bagpipes.

This is where I stepped in. In early August I was back visiting family in Nova Scotia. I visited John Walsh’s bagpipe shop in Antigonish for a visit and chat, and in the process retrieved Bob’s “Starck” pipes.  After some minor adjustments, a bit of hemp here and there, a new blow pipe and chanter, they were good to go. For two weeks I enjoyed playing Bob’s pipes for the crows, seagulls and eagles along Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Strait, and now that I have returned home, I continue to enjoy the great sound from these century old pipes in BC.Starck 2

Bob and his wife have returned to the US and in a recent note said he feels bad that he is separated from his pipes. His melancholy is tempered by the fact that his ivory pipes will be ready for him on his return, safe and sound to beautiful British Columbia in 2015.


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