Visiting the world of James Herriot

Back Home

By Chris Hardie
Posted 5/29/24

Among the many partners in a successful farm is the veterinarian.

When our farm was a dairy operation, my parents retained a wonderful local veterinary service that was a father and son …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Visiting the world of James Herriot

Back Home


Among the many partners in a successful farm is the veterinarian.

When our farm was a dairy operation, my parents retained a wonderful local veterinary service that was a father and son operation. The bonus was the storytelling that was simultaneous to the pregnancy checks – a true talent when you understand that this involves a long-sleeved gloved arm inserted into the cow’s rear end.

When my wife Sherry and I raised sheep, we were fortunate to continue to have the same vet service willing to make calls at all times of the day. Some vets don’t even bother with sheep.

One of the world’s most famous veterinarians is the late James Alfred Wight – better known by his pen name James Herriot. Wight was a practicing veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, England for nearly 50 years and wrote a series of eight books set in the Yorkshire Dales during the 1930s-1950s.

“If Only They Could Talk,” published in 1970, started the series that has sold more than 60 million copies and resulted in several television and film adaptations, including the series “All Creatures Great and Small,” that ran for 90 episodes from 1978 through 1990 and the recent reboot of the same title in 2020 that is running on PBS.

In July 1940, Wight joined the rural practice of Donald Sinclair in Thirsk, near the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. Wight became a full partner in 1949 and retired in 1990.

The practice was at 23 Kirkgate and following Wight’s death, the building was restored and converted into a museum called The World of James Herriot. The museum focuses on Herriot’s writings, has rooms restored to the 1940s when Wight and his family lived there and has some of the surgery sets used in the original “All Creatures Great and Small” TV series, including the living room and dispensary.

Recently, Sherry and I vacationed in England and Scotland and we visited the museum along with driving the rural roads where Wight would have practiced. Actually, rural is redundant when describing these roads. Many are single-track paths that climb up and down from the mountain moors to the tiny villages in the valleys below.

The scenery is spectacular, with picturesque stone wall fences, stone buildings and lots of sheep. We stopped along the road to take pictures of one flock and they all came running to us. Even though we are retired shepherds, we still have the touch.

According to the museum, Wight had intended for years to write a book but was too busy with his practice and family. He was encouraged by his wife Joan in 1966 to begin writing. He chose the pen name James Herriot after seeing a Scottish goalkeeper by the name on TV. He did not publish under his own name because professional etiquette at that time frowned on veterinary surgeons and other professionals from advertising their services.

“If Only They Could Talk,” was not immediately successful when published in 1970 but when his first two books were combined into a single volume in the U.S. under the title “All Creatures Great and Small,” Wight became a best-selling author.

Wight’s books were partially autobiographical, with many stories loosely based on real events or people. Darrowby, the town where most of the stories were set, is a fictional town. Wight gave the pseudonyms Siegfried and Tristan Farnon for his partner Sinclair and his brother Brian and called his wife Helen Alderson.

The museum was a wonderful place to visit, learn about his practice, his life and family. It also had an exhibit on veterinary care and displays for children.

Wight was certainly famous, but he didn’t enjoy the public eye as much as working with animals and he knew his clients didn’t care that he was a best-selling author. “If a farmer calls me with a sick animal, he couldn’t care less if I were George Bernard Shaw,” Wight once said.

Wight died of cancer in 1995, but his books and stories live on.

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at