British Isles

Call the 85-year-old midwife: A bizarre birth in the Outer Hebrides

Discover the true story behind Call the Midwife‘s Christmas special.

This year’s Call the Midwife Christmas special has been filmed and based on the Outer Hebrides. Filming took place across Harris and Lewis, including Scalpay lighthouse and around the Na Geàrrannan blackhouses on the west coast of Lewis. Yet no storyline in the episode could be stranger than the true tale of Scarp in 1934 and a woman heavily pregnant with twins.

Scarp is a small island, located half a mile off the west coast of Harris. It has been uninhabited since 1971 when the departure of the last family brought an end to 170 years of human settlement.

Na Geàrrannan blackhouses Outer Hebrides Scotland by VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

The blackhouses at Na Geàrrannan were just one of the filming locations for the special © VisitScotland/KennyLam

The challenges of living on an island – off another island – were highlighted in 1934. On 14 January, Scarp islander Christina Maclennan gave birth to a healthy first child, Mary, assisted by an 85-year-old midwife. Complications developed around the second child and the midwife decided a doctor was needed. With no telephone on Scarp, an islander crossed the Sound of Scarp to Hushinish on Harris to try and make a call. When he found the telephone there out of order, he had to send the postman’s son by bus to Tarbert, 17 miles away, with a message for the doctor.

The doctor decided that Mrs Maclennan had to go to Stornoway hospital, and so was ferried across high seas to the mainland to deliver the second twin. She was driven to Tarbert, laid out on the floor of the bus, and on to Stornoway in Lewis. She finally gave birth to Jessie, two days later, on a different island. Locally the two girls were long referred to Miss Harris and Miss Lewis.

The drama is widely cited as being the catalyst for an equally bizarre tale, in which Gerhardt Zucher, a German rocket scientist, persuaded the British government to fund a research project to deliver mail rather than babies to the island. The plan was to attach mail to a rocket and launch it across the waters, thus avoiding potentially life-threatening communication delays.

If all went well, Zucher maintained, the scheme might be rolled out across remote islands and communities around the British Isles. Sadly, things didn’t work out. In July 1934, a rocket stuffed with thousands of letters marked ‘Western Isles Rocket Post’ spectacularly failed to deliver, exploding at the first attempt. A second trial was an equal failure.

Scalpay Outer Hebrides by Paul Tomkins VisitScotland

The view over Scalpay, where filming took place © VisitScotland/Paul Tomkins 

Scarp is most easily viewed from afar, or at least, across the 800m wide Sound of Scarp, from the westernmost tip of the Hushinish peninsula. The journey out this way is spectacular and involves 14 miles of meandering along the single track B887; the journey’s end is the beach and tiny community of the same name. The road twists and rises simultaneously, tightly following the contours of the land as it runs along West Loch Tarbert (Loch a’ Siar).

This feels like a road to the end of the world, the kind you might expect to encounter at the bottom of Patagonia. Just a mile or so along, you pass the old Norwegian whaling station of Bunavoneadar (Bun Abhainn Eadarra), where the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme planned to produce smoked whale meat and whale sausages to export to Africa… No, it didn’t catch on.

Amhuinnsuidhe Castle Outer Hebrides by Mark Rowe

Amhuinnsuidhe Castle © Mark Rowe

A few miles further west you pass the front door of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, built in 1868 and later owned by Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, of Sopwith Camel aircraft fame. A weir with crashing falls is located just beyond the castle lawns. From June to September, you have a realistic chance of seeing salmon leap here as they head upstream to spawn.

One of the best ways to visit Scarp is with Clearwater Paddling, whose owner, Chris Denehy, takes groups of kayakers around the westerns water of Harris. Sea Harris also offers cruises in these waters, making landfall on Scarp for a couple of hours.

Want to learn more about the history of the islands? Check out Mark’s comprehensive guidebook: