Call the Midwife’s Christmas episode takes us on a magical trip to the Outer Hebrides for 2019, for a 90-minute special that will surely have viewers packing their bags and heading to Scotland.
But where are the filming locations we see on screen? Here’s what you need to know:
Where did Call the Midwife film the 2019 Christmas special?
The Outer Hebrides are a chain of islands off the West coast of mainland Scotland, and the largest island is called “Harris and Lewis” – because the northern part of the island is called Lewis, while the southern part is called Harris.
“That is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” Miriam Margolyes, who plays Mother Mildred, said ahead of the Christmas special. “And I’ve been to many many places.” (It also has “a wonderful gin distillery,” as she was very keen to stress: “It’s delicious gin and we used to have it every night. I won’t say we were tipsy nuns, but we were jolly.”)
As for the Christmas special, it was a coming-together of story and setting. Reflecting on her first reaction to reading the script, Sister Julienne actress Jenny Agutter said: “It was a highly imaginative story, and you think, ‘Goodness me this is quite different from where we’ve been.’ A lot of magic in it, in a way.
“And then when you go to the Outer Hebrides, suddenly those two things come together. Because the place itself is so powerful… one is touched by a landscape that makes you feel suspended in time and you could almost believe anything. There’s something very strong about the place. And I think that’s what works so well in its favour.”
A Christmas Special video exclusive feature!! ????Our #callthemidwife cast and production team relive the experience of filming in the wild and rugged beauty of the rural Scottish islands… ????????❤️????????????????????????????????????????????
The Call the Midwife Christmas Special. Christmas Day on @BBCOne. x pic.twitter.com/TPv1SKOu3B
— Call the Midwife (@CallTheMidwife1) November 30, 2019
The whole cast flew on a chartered plane from Southend to Stornoway airport.
Judy Parfitt, who plays the elderly and eccentric Sister Monica Joan, said: “When you fly in it’s like coming into a relief map of water and brown, it’s all peat, and I thought ‘Oh God this is going to be so depressing.’ But it’s magnificent! I mean in its beauty – it’s harsh, but it’s magnificent. And you get these amazing Caribbean[-style] beaches and turquoise sea – and the people are so content.”
Did Call the Midwife film in a real lighthouse?
There’s a scene in the Christmas special where Nurse Val (Jennifer Kirby) and Nurse Lucille (Leonie Elliott) end up visiting a beautiful, classic, red-and-white striped lighthouse, along with Dr Turner (Stephen McGann) and Fred Buckle (Cliff Parisi).
The lighthouse we see on screen is Eilean Glas Lighthouse on the east coast of the island of Scalpay.
“The lighthouse was situated about a mile from anywhere a car could go, so we all walked past a certain way,” Kirby said. “The equipment came on quad bikes. So it was very remote.”
Exteriors were filmed at the lighthouse, and we also see inside the real stairwell and lantern room – but the interiors of the keeper’s house were shot on set.
First operating in 1789, Eilean Glas was one of the first four lighthouses to be built in Scotland; the location is remote, with around 300 people living on the whole of Scalpay. While at Christmas 1964 Eilean Glas would still have require a lighthouse keeper like the one we meet in Call the Midwife, in the 70s an automated system was installed which made that traditional job redundant
Where are the standing stones?
In the Call the Midwife Christmas special, we pay a visit to the Callanish Stones – an arrangement of standing stones dating back to the late Neolithic era, or approximately 5,000 years ago. They stand on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
The Callanish Stones are one of the most complete stone circles in Europe and are made of local gneiss rock, arranged with 13 stones in a cruciform pattern and one monolith in the middle – as well as a large tomb and several smaller “avenues” of stones. They were a focus for ritual activity during the Bronze Age, and according to one folklore tradition, the stones are petrified remains of giants who once lived on the island but refused to convert to Christianity.
If they seem familiar to fans of the TV series Outlander, that’s because the Callanish Stones were used as a model for the fictional “Craigh na Dun” standing stones.
But filming there in the pouring rain doesn’t sound like it was much fun.
“When we were amongst those standing stones, you could hardly see in front of your own face,” Jenny Agutter recalled. “And then I couldn’t hear Miriam [Margolyes], we were sort of looking at one another to see if the mouths were moving – and it was so wet!”
“You could not see for the sheeting rain,” Judy Parfitt said. “You actually could not see the rain. And my feet were going down and down and down in the peat…”
Where do the midwives stay in the Outer Hebrides?
For filming, the cast made use of St Clement’s Church in Rodel. This is a late-medieval church built from local rock, for the Chiefs of the MacLeods of Harris – a Scottish Clan.
The church contains magnificent tombs for the MacLeods, as does the graveyard. It was once a Catholic church but fell into disuse shortly after completion; while used as a cow barn in the 19th century, it was later restored and is now under care of Historic Scotland.
But the nuns are not wildly impressed with their accommodation. “We’re expecting to be put up in nice digs,” Helen George says, “But the truth is it’s just this room in an old church with no heating. And it really was a ruined old church with no heating.”
Where did the Call the Midwife cast really stay?
The cast were lucky enough to stay together at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, a massive 12-bedroom mansion on the island of Harris (available for holidays and fishing expeditions and luxury weddings).
For the stars of Call the Midwife, that meant three-course dinners every night together, with Miriam Margolyes presiding over the table and telling stories. “It was a throwback to a more gracious and a more moneyed time,” Margolyes said. “It was elegant, it was sophisticated.”
Helen George added: “We stayed in an amazing castle so we were very spoilt. And we had these amazing dinners. It was a bit Downton Abbey, I’ll be honest.”
There was also a ghost. (Possibly.)
The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of Lady Sophie Scott, who died in 1937 and was buried behind the castle.
Jennifer Kirby explained: “She’s called Lady Sophie, and Laura Main was in the Lady Sophie room which nobody told her about! But she’s a nice ghost. She used to live there and she just really wants everyone to have a good time. So it was fine.”
How did Call the Midwife film the boat scene?
In one scene in the Christmas special, the intrepid foursome of Val, Lucille, Fred and Dr Turner jump in a rowboat and make their way across the water to another island. And that’s exactly what the actors did in real life, while a camera drone flew around them and followed their journey.
“Don’t underestimate drones,” Stephen McGann said. “We used to have to get a crane or a helicopter to do some of these shots… I’m old enough to remember when hiring a helicopter was a lot of money. Of course now we go up to somewhere like Scotland, and next thing you’re hearing this buzz – and they’ve got a drone up.”
“We were dreading it, weren’t we?” said Leonie Elliott.
“We were a bit scared of it,” Jennifer Kirby admitted. “It was so cold and so wet and so windy.”
But according to Elliott, “It was fun in the end actually” – especially as she and Kirby had to direct Stephen McGann and Cliff Parisi to row backwards into exactly the right spot to land on the island.
“We started getting competitive and going round in circles,” Parisi joked.
What time of year was the Christmas special filmed?
The team spent 10 days in the Outer Hebrides shooting the Christmas special, before heading back to Surrey for another two weeks of filming.
But though filming took place in March, the weather felt Christmassy enough.
“In the Hebrides we were extremely cold. Extremely freezing, freezing, freezing,” Miriam Margolyes said. “It wasn’t the most comfortable of shoots, but it was the most inspiring.”
“We were definitely cold,” Jennifer Kirby added. “There was a lot of rain and wind and as it looks onscreen as open and remote, that’s exactly how it was. The wind was really whipping across.”
Where were the Poplar scenes filmed?
We should mention, at this point, that not everyone got a fun Scottish adventure.
Poor Sister Frances (Ella Bruccoleri) and Sister Hilda (Fenella Woolgar) were left behind to man Nonnatus House, sticking around in Poplar with Violet Buckle (Annabelle Apsion) and Reggie Jackson (Daniel Laurie) and Dr Turner’s receptionist Miss Higgins (Georgie Glen).
“There was a feeling of being slightly not in on the adventure,” Glen said, while Bruccoleri admitted: “We were so sad not to go.” Not even their co-stars’ complaints about the freezing weather could lessen their disappointment.
But a good chunk of the Christmas special was filmed back in England.
As ever, filming took place at Call the Midwife’s dedicated set at Longcross Film Studios in Surrey. This is the location of the show’s full-scale exterior set, which is left standing year round. The set includes the outside of Nonnatus House, the Hendy Street allotments, the bridge, Violet’s shop, local houses and shops, and the big square outside the midwives’ HQ.
Further scenes are shot on a closed studio set, including the Turners’ house and the nuns’ dining room. And, specific for the 2019 Christmas special, various interiors of Outer Hebridean buildings were also created on set.
The Call the Midwife 2019 holiday special airs on PBS in the US on Sunday December 6 at 9/8c