Call the Midwife Christmas special

Tens of millions around the world will tune in to the Call the Midwife special on Christmas Day. It’s set in the Outer Hebrides in late 1964.

Here’s part one of a wee quiz to tease out the history. Part two is aimed more at film and TV buffs.

Weather report

Click on image to view the film

The CtM cast noticed lots of Hebridean rain when filming back in April. Not that it ever rains in Poplar  …. this wee promotional film (5 min) shows comedian Roy Hudd and a Queen’s Nurse valiantly cycling through a deluge in the East End in 1974.

What about real-life nurses in the Hebrides at that time?

The vast majority were Queen’s Nurses, known as the “bees knees” – highly qualified in midwifery, public health and district nursing.  On many islands, the nurse was the only resident health worker looking after people 24/7 quite literally from the cradle to the grave. They were so vital to the communities they served that often they didn’t ask for, nor get holiday breaks.

A pretty bleak existence then?

Not at all – the most joyous picture of a nurse I know is that of Catriona MacAskill photographed on North Uist in 1961. She is one of more than 20 Queen’s Nurses interviewed for Catherine Morrison’s excellent book, Hebridean Heroines.

Queen’s Nurse Catriona MacAskill

What was it like before the NHS was created in 1948?

The state-funded Highlands and Islands Medical Service had already been up and running since 1913. One of its first actions was to send a nurse to St Kilda. It paid for essential items like houses, telephones, motorcycles and cars.

Did it work?

Brilliantly. A report in 1936 concluded: “The combination of doctor and nurse is extraordinarily impressive. Many of the doctors say that practice in their areas would be impossible without the services of the nurses, and everywhere we are told that co-operation between doctor and nurse leaves nothing to be desired.”

How did Queen’s nurses come about?

It started as an idea from William Rathbone in Liverpool and was developed with Florence Nightingale for Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee. The Queen’s Nursing Institute (QNI) was established in London and branches in Edinburgh and Dublin.

Three remarkable women – Christian Guthrie Wright, Louisa Stevenson and Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s rebellious fourth daughter formed the driving force in Scotland for the QNIS …..along with Sherlock Holmes.

Joe Bell, the Edinburgh surgeon and inspiration for Conan Doyle’s celebrated detective, valued nurses as much, if not more, than doctors and worked with Nightingale to establish hospital training for nurses. He insisted three years’ hospital experience before starting their Queen’s Nurses.

Why do we not know more about these women?

Same reason Jennifer Worth wrote the original Call the Midwife books – because midwives were hardly recognised at all in literature or media.

Then there was the self-deprecatory culture of district nursing, deferring to doctors and just working quietly rather than showing off. Medicine was largely for men and Queen’s Nurses were invariably single women married to the job.  This only began to change in the 1940s.

Do we still have Queen’s Nurses now?

Yes indeedy. They’re back – first in England and now in Scotland acting as leaders and catalysts for change in their communities – in the Highlands and Islands, helping the elderly and youngsters, refugee mothers and roughnecks on the rigs.

Where else was the idea taken up?

The Appalachian mountains in Kentucky where the Frontier Nursing Service (now Frontier Nursing University) was modelled on the Queen’s Nurses in the Hebrides by pioneer Mary Breckinridge. If you don’t have moist eyes after reading here about her visit in 1924, your heart’s made of stone. She also introduced the term nurse midwife and correctly renamed HIMS as the Highlands and Islands Medical and Nursing Service.

What were “black houses” shown in the Christmas special?

The traditional island house –  taighean dubh in Gaelic  – originally for people and animals. Mary Breckinridge remarked they were the warmest houses she’d experienced in all her time in the UK.


Multiple declarations of interest: I had the privilege of helping edit Hebridean Heroines, research and write a history of the QNIS, and also a web history of the NHS in Scotland.

Shameless plug: my pal Lynne runs the BlackHouse shop which sells Harris Tweed handbags, manbags, and everything Hebridean .

Categories: history on the web, medical and nursing, nursing history

Tags: , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Thank you for writing this!

  2. Also here is a historical Frontier Nursing Service page we created. Come join us!


  1. Call the Midwife Christmas Special (2) | The History Company

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