Call The Midwife: the incredible true story behind the real life Scottish nurses that inspired the Christmas special

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In this year’s one-off episode, the midwives of Nonnatus House are swapping Poplar for the Outer Hebrides. Before you watch tonight, learn about the true story of the women who inspired the episode. 

For decades, intrepid nurses and midwives in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides cared for their patients in ways both intrepid and ingenious.

These midwives took rowboats between island to deliver babies, used local ingredients to make natural medicines for their patients and did whatever they could to treat the pregnant women and infants that were in their care. It was these women, known as the Queen’s Nurses and equal part nurse, midwife and on occasion doctor, who have inspired tonight’s Call The Midwife Christmas Special.

Long before the days of the NHS, the Queen’s Nurses were trained in cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh before being dispatched to rural communities where they often worked alone. These women were required to treat many different kinds of patients and illnesses, often with limited resources and a lack of access and recourse to modern medicine. The program, which was part of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service (HIMS), offered free, government-funded medical care some 35 years before the introduction of the NHS. 

And, according to Call The Midwife executive producer and writer Heidi, their story is one that must be told. In a new interview, Thomas told the BBC that she has “incredible respect” for the Queen’s Nurses.

“They often had to diagnose patients and fulfill the role of a doctor,” she said. “The resourcefulness of a nurse is 100 times as much in a rural area… It was such a lovely experience to investigate their stories. I was captivated by it.” 

Call The Midwife Christmas special: The nuns and midwives arrive in the Outer Hebrides

Thomas also praised the landscape of Scotland, where the special was filmed. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life,” she told Radio Times. “It was very wintery, it was very very cold. But the landscapes are fantastic, there’s a real poetry to them.”

Filming in the Outer Hebrides was often disrupted by inclement weather, Thomas explained, which only added to the convivial atmosphere on set. “They were such troopers, I can’t tell you,” Thomas added. “They were writing wet all the way through to their knickers, and Miriam [Margolyes] just waved her hand and she said ‘Darling, it’s just cold filming.’ And they were up for it. Judy Parfitt, her veil was drenched, her coat was drenched. And then ironically there’s a scene set in a storm a few days later and the sun was cracking the flag.”

The real life Queen’s Nurses would have sympathised. These women were used to working through every single possible permutation of weather: rain, hail or shine. Using motorbikes and rowboats, they made their way across their treatment areas – sometimes walking for miles and miles – to care for their patients no matter what. 

“They certainly were confident and capable women,” Catherine Morrison, author of historical book Hebridean Heroines, told the BBC. “They did everything. It really was non-stop but everybody enjoyed their work and no-one complained.”

Tonight’s Call The Midwife Christmas special will see the women of Nonnatus House quit Poplar for a short period of time and travel to the Outer Hebrides to help the residents of a remote but idyllic Scottish island who desperately need capable midwives. Thomas has described the episode as “a magical Christmas experience… featuring wild seas, stormy skies and some very disobedient sheep”.

Call the Midwife Christmas special 2019: The midwives give a standing ovation to Sister Monica Joan as she arrives in the Outer Hebrides

Thomas also hinted that, given how much fun she had writing the special, she would consider penning a Call The Midwife spin-off series starring the intrepid Queen’s Nurses. 

Now, wouldn’t that be a Christmas treat for us all?

The Call The Midwife Christmas special airs on BBC One tonight, 25 December, at 7PM. 

Images: BBC

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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