Great Scot! What a Festival!
By Katie Liesener ’03 | Published in summer 2015 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.
Over a weekend each June, a field in Itasca, Ill., transforms into a curious tent city. Bagpipers bray at the entrance. Children, clacking wooden swords, run among the legs of kilted Scots in crisp Glengarry hats whose faces glow red from whiskey tastings. Now and again, the Scots raise a cheer: “For rugby scores! For hay bales heaved skyward! For the knobbliest knees sashayed across a stage!”
Until recently, the marshal of this mayhem, the annual Scottish Festival & Highland Games, was Julia Witty-Miller ’06, then director of programming for Chicago Scots, which started as a Scottish immigrants association in 1845. There, Witty-Miller oversaw several programs to connect Scots and other Caledophiles to their Scottish heritage – golf outings, black-tie dinners, a business forum, clubs and more.
But the Highland Games was Witty-Miller’s largest and most demanding event. Without staff, she prepared for nine months, relying on the help of nearly 500 volunteers. Once the games began, she steered her golf cart across the grounds to manage one issue after another – from full parking garages to main stage power outages to friendly Scots trying to ply her with whiskey shots to get a ride in her cart. She was lucky if she slept four hours during the weekend-long festival.
“Some people think all I do is go to parties,” she said. “But event planning and programming is a lot of hard work.”
Witty-Miller could not have imagined work of this scale when she first started event planning at Millikin. As a student worker, she helped the alumni and development office prepare for Homecoming events, and as a business management major, she co-organized a Tabor Business School conference.
“We organized alums to talk on panels, coordinated catering, and ensured there were enough tables, chairs and nametags … all that little stuff people don’t think twice about when they come in.”
Within a year of graduation, Witty-Miller was working at a fundraising consultancy owned by fellow alum and Tri-Delta sister, Nike Smyth Whitcomb ’66. Whitcomb invited her to the Highland Games, and though Witty-Miller is not particularly Scottish (“I’m a classic American mutt”), she was instantly hooked. The closing ceremony – featuring nearly a thousand bagpipes lowing “Amazing Grace” – gave her goosebumps.
Witty-Miller loved the strong sense of community, and felt the organization had great potential to do more. Immediately after taking the directorship in 2012, she insisted on two changes: tangible membership benefits and a complete overhaul of the website.
She didn’t stop there. To reverse declining membership, she created more free and low-cost programs, including pub crawls for adults and kids events for young families. During her tenure, Chicago Scots also worked to connect Scottish companies with business opportunities in the U.S., strengthened a support network for ex-pats, brought contemporary Scottish musicians stateside and organized a reading by “Trainspotting” author Irvine Welsh.
Witty-Miller also brought innovative thinking to the marketing strategy for the Highland Games, shifting from billboards to geo-targeted web and direct mail campaigns. Her Cyber Monday sale catapulted advance ticket sales by 200 percent. The Games, which usually draw 12,000-15,000 people, drew an estimated 17,000-18,000 in 2014.
On the final evening of the 2014 games, a severe thunderstorm approached, threatening the beloved closing ceremony. Witty-Miller had to put the crowd’s safety first. Over the loudspeaker, she directed people to the parking garages. But inside the garages, the Scots broke out their bagpipes, danced to the rhythmic rainfall and cheered the thunderclaps. Afterward, a hardy group marched back into the slop to resume their places in the beer tent.
“People could’ve gotten angry, freaked out, stressed,” Witty-Miller said. “But they kept the party going — they wouldn’t let rain keep them down. That’s something that stuck with me.”
Editor's note: Last October, Julie Witty-Miller ’06 accepted a new position as director of annual giving and marketing operations for the University of Illinois Foundation in Champaign, Ill.
Katie Liesener ’03 of Chicago, a freelance writer, attended the Highland games last summer to write this profile.