August 04, 2014

(Updated) Confiscated! Two vintage bagpipes seized at US border

They did everything by the book. They had their CITES permits. They even disclosed to the officials that they were carrying instruments that featured antique ivory. But Campbell Webster and Eryk Bean, both age 17, are nonetheless each without their vintage Robertson drones after they attempted to return home to Massachusetts after a successful weekend in Canada competing at the games Maxville and Montreal.

Webster’s 1936 silver and ivory Robertsons are not just vintage pipes, they are an heirloom instrument, played for many years by his father Gordon Webster, who was a pipe-major with the 1st and 2nd Battalion Scots Guards and served for many years as the official piper to Queen Elizabeth II.

Bean’s drones are also Robertsons, with full ivory mounts, made in 1958, which he purchased in January of this year for US$7,000.

Campbell Webster (left) and Eryk Bean at the US-Canada border crossing after their vintage instruments were confiscated by US officials.

At first they were told that the pipes would be held for a week. But while pipes|drums was speaking with Campbell and Lezlie Webster, they received the devastating news that neither set of pipes would be returned.


But the two were later informed that their pipes would in fact be returned to them, in what they hope would lead to the ultimate end in the roller-coaster two days.

“We were asked [by the Canadian official] our reason for travel, so I said ‘Maxville and Montreal games,’ ” Campbell Webster said about their trip out of the USA. “They asked if we had pipes. I said yes and also that they had ivory and we had CITES certificates. I knew I was flagged. I had spoken with a US Fish & Wildlife Department agent in Champlain, New York, and she informed me I needed an amendment to my CITES permit. I couldn’t get one in time to cross the border for Maxville games.”

Campbell Webster playing his father’s 1936 Robertsons.

So they decided to travel to Canada anyway, and got into the country with no trouble. But when they returned to the United States they were easy pickings for the US officials.

Having all paperwork in place – a CITES permit and the additional amendment – will cost a total of $238 each time an American takes an ivory instrument into Canada. When travelling abroad to places such as Scotland, Americans must schedule an appointment with an official at a “designated” port and make a declaration on their customs form, but there is no fee.

For an American piper with drones that feature ivory, the cost will be nearly $500 and a lot of hassle, even after doing everything by the current letter of the law.

Webster’s mother, Lezlie, who is also a prominent piper, has gotten State Senators involved, but so far even they have had no success.

“The boys are absolutely sick to their stomachs,” Lezlie Webster said upon receiving word that they might never recover the instruments.

The crackdown by US officials couldn’t come at a worse time, when dozens of the United States’ best pipers are about to travel to compete at the World Championships in Glasgow. They are now scrambling either to complete documentation or find replacement instruments that do not feature ivory mounts.

“No piper I know of supports the use of ivory today for new bagpipes,” said one piper who commented but did not wish his name to be used. “This looks like some sort of effort by officials to seize as much ‘contraband’ as possible to fulfill their job quotas. It’s absolutely idiotic.”

Webster said that he is worried the matter has alerted other smaller ports to be on the lookout for bagpipes.

“The CITES certificate is only good at main ports like airports,” he added. “We need to work on getting smaller port crossings without fees and extra paperwork. They’re going to have a lot of bagpipes very soon – enough to start their own pipe band.”

Campbell Webster said that Wallace Bagpipes of Glasgow has already stepped up to loan him an instrument when he competes in Scotland in August, should he need it.



  1. I have known the Websters for many years, and just last night I was in the beer tent at the Montreal Highland Games talking to Lezlie and Campbell, and had the pleasure of meeting Eryk. We listened to the two of them play both pipes and drums, swapping instruments with ease and showing off their enormous talent and love of the art. Then several hours later as I was driving home the news came in over Facebook about this absurd seizure. I hope the officials do the moral and common-sense thing and return the pipes forthwith so these young men can get on their way to Scotland promptly.

  2. It would be interesting to know exactly how this border conversation went: whether the customs folk asked specifically about ivory unprovoked or not. I would never use the word ivory with a customs official unless asked. I might have the CITES certificate with me, but I would never present it unless I had to. Never willingly offer information on restricted material unless you’re asked. Present your papers when you have to. It is perhaps not the most morally up-front approach, but 45 years of border experience has taught me that they don’t always behave rationally at international borders. I’m sorry to say that honesty is not the best policy in this situation.

  3. This is daft beyond words. It is really obvious that these are pre-convention instruments – nobody in their right mind would be caught dead using modern bagpipes ornamented with poached ivory. It should be pretty simple to check the age of the ivory by modern dating techniques, or, failing that, have the age of the particular instruments certified by a specialist. Why is there not a “passport” system in place for us to be able to move freely with the instruments we love and cherish? Surely it is not beyond the wit of man?

  4. There must be something we (the bagpiping community) can do to assist, in a) getting already wrongfully siezed instruments returned, and b) challenge the US government for a law change. I agree that post-ban ivory should not be allowed to cross borders, but I do not agree that every musician should pay or provide extensive paperwork to prove that the instrument they carry is legal or not – whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?’ It is their job as law-enforcement to do the investigating. I would like to see a petition started, and word of it passed round via all PBA’s.

  5. Jim McGillivray has indeed sage advice. But I do not think it the least bit dishonest, when crossing the Canadian/American border to put the onus on those asking and not volunteer anything which opens up a can of worms unless specifically asked, as you are not doing anything wrong requiring declaration in my opinion. This whole sorry saga is but one of the several instances of the “thickening” of the American/Canadian border post 9/11 and emanating from the American government either IRS, Customs and Immigration or Homeland Security such as the U.S. requirement for passports or now perhaps work visas for people being paid a relatively small stipend to judge or hold seminars in the States (foreign worker issue). I now live back in Windsor and play a set of 1910 silver and real ivory Lawries so a foray into the States with my pipes is not in my immediate plans, CITES notwithstanding. Fortunately I just acquired, thanks to my sister’s thrift shop searches, a set of ’50s big bore Sinclairs with the orange catalin mounts that can serve as my “cross border” instrument if needs be. My heart goes out to those two young gentlemen and hope this ends well for them. Cheers, Syd Girling



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