Who is James Herriot and How “True” is All Creatures Great and Small?

January 10, 2021

The TV series All Creatures Great and Small is a remake of the beloved book series by James Herriot, premiering on THIRTEEN on January 10, 2021 (see entire schedule). The heartwarming tales of a veterinarian who serves an English countryside community kick off the 50th anniversary of Masterpiece, which first aired a television adaptation of the stories in the late 1970s and late 1980s.

Now, new viewers are being introduced to Herriot, who wrote about his life and barnyard and household visits as a veterinarian more than half a century ago. How real is the story? In this FAQ, Masterpiece covers both the true history behind All Creatures Great and Small, and how characters, plot, location, and even time period are embellishments on Herriot’s life experiences (see sources for this FAQ, below.)

Read on for 15 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about James Herriot, author of the All Creatures Great and Small books.

Was James Herriot a real person?

James Herriot was the pen name chosen by James Alfred “Alf” Wight, a rural veterinarian whose semi-autobiographical stories about caring for animals in the Yorkshire Dales have been enjoyed by generations. His gift was an easy, conversational style that captured a fast-disappearing way of life and offered insights into human nature with warmth and ample humor.  Wight chose the pseudonym partly because the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons frowned on members who advertised.

The alter ego of Jim Herriot was actually the name of a professional soccer goalkeeper from Scotland.

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Was Wight Scottish or English?

Though both Alf Wight and his character James Herriot speak with a Scottish accent, Wight is actually a born Englishman. His English parents moved into a tenement apartment in Glasgow early in their marriage. Young Hannah Wight returned to her family home in Sunderland, England to give birth in October 1916. Mrs. Wight and her 3-week-old baby returned to Glasgow, where Alf Wight had a happy, if poor, working class upbringing in the industrial city for the next twenty-odd years. He always considered himself a Glaswegian at heart and certainly sounded like one!

Where did Alf Wight (a.k.a. James Herriot) have his veterinary practice?

Wight graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College at age 23 and started looking for a position. Contrary to popular belief, his very first professional job was back in Sunderland, England where he still had relatives to board with.

A modern three-story brick building viewed from a sloping side street, lined with low-lying flowering plants.

University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine. Photo: Vojtěch Dostál

That first position was tenuous; it depended on the success of a greyhound racing stadium nearby. In July 1940, Alf Wight found a more secure job in the rural practice of Donald Sinclair at Skeldale House, 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk, England. Incidents described in the James Herriot books mostly occurred in and around Thirsk—about 20 miles from the actual Yorkshire Dales.

With the exception of two and a half-years in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Alf Wight remained at the Thirsk practice for the rest of his career. He practiced alongside brothers Donald and Brian Sinclair, then a string of different students and assistants, and finally, his own son as of 1967.

After close to half a century caring for animals—long after his celebrity—Wight retired in 1989 at age 73. The veterinary practice is still an ongoing enterprise.

The town of “Darrowby” in the Herriot books is actually a mixture of Thirsk, Richmond, Leybourn, and Middleham. Despite the fictional name, readers soon identified the actual location, which became an attraction for tourists with sites celebrating the popular vet’s life. The original Skeldale House is now The World of James Herriot museum.

A tv set built to look like a simple veterinarian's dispensary shows shelving with assorted medicinal bottles, part of a fireplace and a small desk.

Part of the BBC TV set for All Creatures Great and Small (1978-80; 1988-90) on permanent display at the World of James Herriot museum in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. Photo: G1MFG

How did Wight become a writer?

Alf Wight thoroughly appreciated great authors and was himself a talented letter writer. Over the years, his correspondence addressed both the enormous changes taking place in his profession and observations about locals he met, their customs and folk remedies. When verbally regaling his family with anecdotes, Wight repeatedly pledged to turn them into stories someday. It wasn’t until he was 50 years old that he began to pursue publication in earnest.

After some false starts writing about his outdoor past times including golf and football (soccer), Wight turned to the subject nearest his heart: his own career. While he claimed to have not regularly kept a personal diary, Wight did consistently record his treatment of local animals as “headings” in notebooks. With these headings or diaries or both, he was able to reproduce incidents from prior years with great detail.

He began what would be his first published book in 1965, writing in the evenings in front of the television, Olivetti typewriter in lap. The first draft was completed in 18 months, but it took four years for Wight to find a UK publisher. If Only They Could Talk was released as a serial in the London Evening Standard and then published in April 1970 with 3,000 copies printed for UK distribution.

It was followed by It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1972. Fearing locals would recognize themselves in the stories and feel others were having a laugh at their expense, Wight did not want anyone to know he had been published. His wish was thwarted soon enough.  

 

When did James Herriot become famous?

Alf Wight’s first two books of stories sold a few thousand copies each in the UK. It was a New York publisher who changed the childish-looking cover art and combined the works under the title “All Creatures Great and Small,” a phrase borrowed from the 19th century English hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.

The new volume wasn’t reviewed until months after its 1972 publication and only when positive word of mouth created a buzz. It became a U.S. best-seller soon thereafter and saved St. Martin’s press, which was financially struggling at the time.

Between 1972 and 1979, Wight wrote four more books, astonishing for someone working as a full-time veterinarian. By the mid-70s he was a household name. American fans became so commonplace in the waiting room at Skeldale House that he set aside two afternoons a week to greet them and sign books.

According to his family, Wight spoke little about his achievements, and his attitude to friends and clients remained unchanged. Regarding the people of Thirsk, his son has written that “There is no doubt that a large proportion of them—farmers included—were not only well aware of his achievements but derived pleasure themselves through his worldwide acclaim.” 

Despite tremendous success as an author over 24 years, Wight continued to view writing as a cherished hobby and the welfare of the Sinclair and White veterinary practice his priority. He worked full time as a vet up until 1980 and didn’t outright retire for another nine years. 

Are Herriot’s characters based on real people?

A woman and man, both in long sleeves, rest their arms on a stone wall in front of them. Behind them is a sloping pasture.

All Creatures Great and Small on PBS – shown L to R: Helen Alderson (played by Rachel Shenton), James Herriott (played by Nicholas Ralph). Photo: Ed Miller

The published stories share numerous autobiographical elements from Alf Wight’s life as a country vet: Wight lived and worked with Donald and Brian Sinclair in Skeldale House; there really was a love-hate relationship between the brothers; and, the elder Donald’s unpredictability and bluster, along with Brian’s antics and love of fun, provided much material when Wight later turned to writing.

Donald Sinclair was said to have strongly disliked his portrayal in the books and later on-screen, never believing himself to be impulsive or inconsistent. Meanwhile, Brian was delighted to be captured as Tristan and remained enthusiastic about all Wight’s books.

The character of Helen Alderson is based on Joan Danbury—not a farmer’s daughter at all but a secretary in Thirsk. (She actually did cause a stir in Thirsk by apparently being the first woman there to wear pants, however.) Contrary to the stories, Alf Wight met her in a group outing to a local dance. Evidently, he felt she was worth pursuing from the first, though she had a number of boyfriends and admirers. They wed in November 1941 and spent early married life on the top floor of Skeldale House.

Always concerned about locals’ anonymity, Wight set his stories in the Yorkshire Dales years before his real experiences occurred. He changed the name, age, and even the sex of many characters—although a Miss Marjorie Warner and her Pekingese Bambi are unmistakably embodied by Mrs. Pumphries and Tricki Woo.

An elderly woman with blond bob and bangs and wearing red lipstick and scarlet jacket holds a long-haired, small pekingnese dog in a library.

In MASTERPIECE “All Creatures Great and Small,” Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs. Pumphrey, the owner of Tricki-Woo (Derek).

 

How did Wight feel about the film and TV adaptations?

Whether he wanted it or not, Alf Wight’s fame sky-rocketed once a film adaptation of his books was released in 1975. According to his son, Wight’s emotions at that time “were ones of pride mixed with incredulity.”Wight approved scripts but did not want the job of veterinary advisor on set. And though the role of Donald Sinclair went to Anthony Hopkins, Wight’s real-life partner again did not approve of his depiction. When the first film was well reviewed, a second was undertaken. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet premiered in 1976, another box office triumph. 

The BBC series came next and aired all over the world in two phases between 1978 and 1990. Again, Wight approved scripts, paid regular visits to the set, and was said to thoroughly enjoy the series. A relatively unknown actor named Christopher Timothy gained almost immediate fame playing James Herriot and developed a genuine respect for the real Alf Wight. The Wight family reports that of all the actors they met during those years, Timothy was the one who kept most closely in touch.

 

What is the legacy of James Herriot?

A sky blue metal plaque dedicated to James Alfred Wight is affixed to a stone brick wall.

Commemorative plaque at Wight’s original practice in Thirsk.

The James Herriot books have never been out of print since their 1970 debut. They have sold over 60 million copies worldwide, been translated into 20-plus languages, and adapted for film and television.

For someone who started with practically nothing, it is a massive achievement. Alf Wight’s stories are timeless because of the emphasis on his relationships with the people of Yorkshire and their animals. Providing an image of veterinarians as caring for people and animals both, the stories have inspired many to become vets themselves. His focus on the importance of community in our lives gives Alf Wight’s work an enduring power and contemporary resonance.

Alf Wight died in 1995 at age 78 from pancreatic cancer in his home near Thirsk. Quite a variety of accolades were bestowed on him both before and after his death. There are two James Herriot blue plaques in Thirsk and Glasgow, respectively. A pub, a street, and a train are all named in his honor. A statue of Herriot stands at Thirsk Racecourse. Wight was no doubt much prouder of his many literary and veterinary honors. A highlight was being awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1979 for his contributions to literature. 

What is the order of James Herriot titles?

If Only They Could Talk (1970 in UK)

It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (1972 in UK)

All Creatures Great and Small (1972 as US compilation)

Let Sleeping Vets Lie (1973 in UK)

Vet in Harness (1974 in UK)

All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974 as US compilation) 

Vets Might Fly (1976 in UK)

Vet in a Spin (1977 in UK)

All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977 as US compilation)

James Herriot’s Yorkshire (1979)

The Lord God Made Them All (1981)

Every Living Thing (1992)

 

James Herriot Anthology Compilations

Animal Stories, Tame & Wild (1979 in UK)  

The Best of James Herriot (1982)

James Herriot’s Dog Stories (1986 in UK) 

James Herriot’s Treasury for Children (1992 in US)

James Herriot’s Cat Stories (1994 in UK)

Seven Yorkshire Tales (1995 in UK)

James Herriot’s Yorkshire Village (1995)

James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories (1996)

James Herriot’s Yorkshire Stories (1997 in UK) 

James Herriot’s Animal Stories (1997)

James Herriot’s Yorkshire Revisited (1999)

James Herriot’s Treasury of Inspirational Stories for Children (2005)

 

James Herriot Children’s Picture Books

Moses the Kitten (1984)

Only One Woof (1985)

The Christmas Day Kitten (1986)

Bonny’s Big Day (1987)

Blossom Comes Home (1988) 

The Market Square Dog (1989)

Oscar: Cat About Town (1990)

Smudge’s Day Out (1991)

Smudge, The Little Lost Lamb (1991)

 

FAQ Content Sources

  • James Herriot’s Yorkshire by James Herriot and Derry Brabbs. St. Martin’s Griffin. 1981 edition.  
  • James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet by Graham Lord. Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. 1997.  
  • James Herriot: A Critical Companion by Michael John Rossi. Greenwood Press. 1977.  
  • The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father by Jim Wight. Ballantine Books, 1999.
  • Veterinary Practice Journal, “All Creatures Great and Small” by John Periam. Improve International. February 2020.
  • Sunderland Echo, “The Story of James Herriot: The Lad from Roker Who Sold Over 60 Million Books” by Tony Gillan. August 2, 2020. JPI Media Publishing Ltd.