THE wild beauty of rural Scotland will take centre stage in this year's Call The Midwife Christmas special as Mother Mildred and the Nonnatus House team head to the Outer Hebrides in response to a nursing shortage.

Shot in Lewis and Harris earlier this year, the one-off festive episode – which airs ahead of series nine beginning next month – follows the midwives as they establish an antenatal clinic, battling challenging weather and rugged terrain, not to mention the fierce suspicions of some islanders.

Here, Aberdonian actor Laura Main, who stars as Shelagh Turner, talks about her experiences making the show, as Call The Midwife creator and writer Heidi Thomas explains why she chose the Outer Hebrides as a location for the Christmas special.

Also, real-life nurse Catherine Macdonald, the head of midwifery at the Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway, recounts her experiences from three decades caring for babies in the islands.


What was it like shooting the Call The Midwife Christmas special in Lewis and Harris?

It was wonderful. I love being back in Scotland. I filmed one of my scenes on Luskentyre Beach which is beautiful. Unfortunately, it wasn't sunny that particular day but what a great location.

Jenny Agutter did a scene at Calanais Stones in the howling wind and the rain. We saw all weathers during our shoot.

On our days off, Jenny hired a car and we went sightseeing around the islands. One of the places we visited was the standing stones at Calanais because Jenny wanted to see them properly when she wasn't working. The sun was shining that day.

All of the cast were staying together at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle in Harris overlooking the sea. It was a spectacular location. There was an oak-panelled dining room and we had four-course meals every night.

That is one of the highlights of being on location. Usually at the end of filming each day, we are all off home in our separate cars. I enjoyed spending time together in the evenings. It was good fun.

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Everyone we met in the islands was so lovely and friendly. Returning to the hubbub of London after filming was a shock to the system. It felt like such a contrast with all the traffic and how built-up everything is.

Will you sit down with the family to watch on Christmas Day?

There is always something special about watching the show when it goes out live. The cast usually get to see the episode in advance, so when I do sit down with my family, I know what to expect and there is less of that wanting-to-hide-behind-the-sofa feeling.

You have been part of Call The Midwife since 2012. What has that been like?

I love being part of the show. It has been an amazing experience. It now looks like Call The Midwife is going to be a decade of our lives. Series 10 will be filmed next year and series 11 has been commissioned which takes us up to 2022.

You're currently starring as the Fairy Godmother in the pantomime Cinderella at His Majesty's Theatre in your native Aberdeen. Are you enjoying it?

This is my first time and I'm loving it. It has long been a dream of mine. I live in London and it's been good to be home in Aberdeen. My mum and dad only live 10 minutes up the road. I did panto before in Barnstaple and they had to take two flights and a train to come and watch me.

I have two months in Aberdeen – the longest I have been back for many years. I'm staying with my parents. It is fantastic being able to see more of them both. It will probably be just the three of us on Christmas Day. We all do our bit to make the Christmas dinner. My speciality is the prawn cocktail sauce.

We will then do a pretend Christmas Day with my two older sisters, nephews and niece later in the festive season. I always think it is nice for the kids to be able to spend the day in their own house once Santa has been with all of their presents.

You play a Fairy Godmother. If you could grant yourself a Christmas wish, what would it be?

Health and happiness. I feel very lucky being able to spend quality time with all my family this Christmas. In recent years, I have been touring with Shrek: The Musical and spent Christmas in Edinburgh and Leeds. As I get older, material things feel less important. I would like to extend that wish of health and happiness to all my loved ones.

Do you have any festive traditions?

There is always something great about the first mince pie, isn't there? A new tradition I've started in recent years is my travelling tree. I usually have it in my dressing room. When you are on tour, it means you can take a little bit of Christmas with you.

Earlier this month, I arrived home after rehearsals to find a lovely surprise. My sister had been to my parents' house and decorated it from top to bottom with Christmas decorations. It feels so festive.

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Another favourite tradition is that my mum and I like to watch The Snowman together. It's a lovely film and it gets me every time.


THE Outer Hebrides is the most beautiful place I have ever been to in my life, and the isles of Lewis and Harris make a magnificent setting for the 2019 Christmas special. There are storms, mountains, standing stones, anarchic sheep, and sweeping beaches that take the breath away. The perfect backdrop, in fact, for our famous crimson cardigans and hats.

During filming, I stayed with the actors in a beautiful and evocative country house hotel overlooking the sea. Complete with oak panelling, log fires, a ghost and a dinner gong, it resembled the setting for a murder mystery, especially once our troupe of thespians moved in. I used to come downstairs each morning wondering whose body was going to be discovered in the drawing room.

By the time the gales and the rain kicked in, I started to worry that it might be mine. It had after all, been my idea to drag the cast, crew and entire production team to the furthermost, most wind-lashed outpost of the British Isles.

The interesting thing about series nine, which begins in January, is that our characters will challenge their own expectations of the jobs they do. Some of them have been working at Nonnatus House for years, with medical and scientific developments making life quite comfortable. I wanted there to be a challenge to their certainty which works so well in the Christmas special.

The Outer Hebrides didn't immediately spring to mind, I briefly considered Hong Kong because our story could take us back there, but it wasn't going to tick our magical Christmas box and in my research I discovered the role that triple duty nurses played in the Hebrides. A triple duty nurse is a midwife, a district nurse and a health visitor all rolled into one, which is exactly the skillset our midwives use in Poplar.

The locations are incredible. Our producer, Annie Tricklebank, went up on an advance visit and she found a lighthouse and the most incredible standing stones. She found an incredible medieval church which had been used for a long time as a youth hostel.

It was deconsecrated but it was possibly one of the most magical and holy buildings I've ever been into. The scenery itself, the coastline, the views, the rocks, even the trees and the vegetation, were just magical.

It may not have been the easiest of shoots, but it was a triumphant one, so much so that (whisper it) I haven't yet ruled out the notion of a spin off ...

While the background for the Christmas story – a sudden gap in maternity provision in the Hebrides – is based on historic fact, my overall inspiration for the forthcoming series came from much closer to home.

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Last winter, for several months, I had to take a break from work in order to nurse my mother through her final illness. This unforeseen crisis brought me into closer, more constant contact with the medical profession than I have ever had before. Hospital clinics, the GP's surgery. Ambulances on Christmas Day, A&E at 3am. Palliative care wards, a hospice bed. As a family, we saw it all.

It was a testing time, and yet a profoundly inspiring one. The healthcare system we found ourselves trapped in was underfunded, labyrinthine, and creaking at the seams. The hospital was falling apart, and chains of communication were terrible. But at every turn we met with highly skilled, profoundly committed, deeply generous nurses, paramedics and support staff, and they made all the difference.

During a time that is almost too painful to remember, I met people I never want to forget. People who would offer a hug, or a kind word, when we most needed it. People who would take the time and trouble to explain the latest trauma or conjure up a cup of terrible tea. People who were underpaid, and often undervalued, but who never under delivered simply because they cared.

And no matter how much the bureaucrats and politicians crunch the numbers, and gnash their teeth, and say the NHS has become financially unviable, you cannot put a price on compassion. It is that compassion that keeps the system going year after year, decade after decade. And keeps people like me and my family going, throughout our darkest hours.


How long have you been a midwife?

I've worked as a midwife in the Western Isles since November 1986. I did my midwifery training at the Southern General, now the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, in Glasgow.

What drew you to this field?

I trained as a general nurse first because there was no direct entry to midwifery programmes back then. I wanted to work in the community on Lewis as a district nurse but at that time you needed to be what was called "dual-duty" with both general nursing and midwifery qualifications.

I found I really enjoyed midwifery. I have practised as a midwife ever since. In Stornoway we have a small unit with eight beds, two labour ward beds and a birthing pool. There isn't a huge demand for home births, but we can facilitate that. I have been the head of midwifery since 2005.

What does your job entail?

As midwives we do a mixture of everything. My main role is managerial, and my patch covers the area from the Butt of Lewis to the point of Barra in the Western Isles. I still do very much hands-on midwifery as and when needed, including delivering babies.

We are a small team in Stornoway who oversee antenatal care, intrapartum care – which is labour – and postnatal care. On Harris, where they did some filming for Call The Midwife, I have two double-duty staff whose role is predominantly nursing, but they do the midwifery cases for that area.

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With any ill babies, in the first instance, we try to look after them here. We work closely with the West of Scotland neonatal team and can use video link to do that. There is a dedicated neonatal transport team for any babies that need to be transferred to a mainland tertiary unit.

How different is it working in an island maternity unit compared to a big town or city?

We deal with all aspects of midwifery, including early pregnancy losses. Whereas, if you are in a big tertiary unit, there will be a gynaecology ward, a labour ward and so on.

When it comes to transferring a patient, you do need to think about these things earlier than in a larger hospital that has neonatal services, anaesthetics and everything to hand. In an island setting, you must consider things such as: "When will the air ambulance get in?"

If one of our patients has to be transferred – for example, a woman with diabetes or who is in premature labour – that is a long transfer over land and sea. Usually one of us will travel with her.

What is it like to welcome a Christmas baby?

Christmas and New Year babies – because they arrive whenever they want to – are always a special moment. There is a friendly banter between all the units in Scotland about who gets the first Christmas baby.

We always have a wee parcel for those babies, usually a knitted blanket or a toy. There are some older women in the islands who do a tremendous amount of knitting for us and donate hats, boots, and cardigans.

It is important when we are transporting babies that we keep them warm, so they always have a special blanket and a hat if we can. We have a supply of small hats for our very premature born babies. There are lots of knitters throughout the islands who are very generous.

That is something that we and our transport team appreciate. Sadly, not as many people knit these days. It used to be when I came into work, most of our patients would be sitting knitting like you see on the TV programme. You rarely see anybody knitting now – only the grannies.

Is it exciting that the Call The Midwife Christmas special is set in Lewis and Harris?

We are delighted. All my staff watch the programme – I don't know a midwife who doesn't. My family call me Sister Monica Joan because I love chocolates. They got me a mug one Christmas with her face on it. I'm off this Christmas Day and will be sitting down to watch the show. It is as important as the Queen's Speech, perhaps more so, because this episode was filmed in the islands.

The storyline centres on a gap in maternity provision in the Hebrides during the mid-1960s. Is that something you can relate to?

We are struggling to recruit midwives to the islands. There are fewer places training midwives and often people who leave the islands want to stay near the bigger hospitals and tertiary units in the central belt of Scotland.

The Scottish Government has created a shortened midwifery programme and Raigmore Hospital in Inverness is now training nurses similar to the way I was trained years ago, with general nursing training and then 18 months of midwifery training.

That was then stopped and in more recent times you either became a general nurse or a midwife through direct entry. The shortened midwifery programme is a godsend for us. It means nurses in the locality, who want to remain here, can now do a 20-month programme to qualify as a midwife.

It is absolutely brilliant. I have two staff doing that at the moment and two starting in January.

What is hardest part of the job?

Midwifery isn't only about live births. It has its sad aspects too. But if we can support a couple going through a bereavement and make it as comfortable as we possibly can for them, that is rewarding.

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What do you enjoy most?

Every aspect of my work. I was in the lift with one of the theatre porters the other day and she asked: "If you had your time again, Catherine, would you be a midwife?" I replied: "Definitely." I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else.

Call The Midwife is on BBC One, Christmas Day, 7pm. Cinderella is at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen until January 5