James Herriot – All Creatures Great and Small

But Who is James Herriot?

Before he became bestselling author James Herriot, a.k.a James Alfred Wight, was a British veterinary surgeon from Sunderland. He graduated from the Glasgow veterinary college in 1939 before returning to England, where he practiced for close to 50 years in Yorkshire.

During this time, he trained in the Royal Air Force to be a pilot but never quite realized his dream.

James Herriot’s Author Biography and Story

Born on the third of October 1916 in Sunderland, England, Wight moved to Glasgow with his parents at a very young age. He began his career as a veterinary surgeon in 1940 after graduating from Glasgow the year before.

Upon moving to Yorkshire, he began working as an assistant vet to Dr. Donald Sinclair, better known as Zigfried Farman to many of Herriot’s readers, at the Skeldale Veterinary practice. 

Coincidentally this was the same year he started a three-year-long training run with the British Airforce. Leaving his pregnant wife Joan (better known to readers as The flamboyant Helen Anderson) to pursue a career as a pilot. Unfortunately, his plans to be a Royal Air-Man were halted by medical issues in the middle of his training.

Upon returning from service, James decided to continue his veterinary services, primarily focusing on caring for cattle and workhorses in the Yorkshire dales. He met many of the characters in his books during his visits to the many farms.

According to his son Jim Wight, who used to accompany his father on many of his work trips, James was very passionate about his veterinary work. He would often require nothing but his hands, eyes, and brain to diagnose one of his furry patients. 

Herriot once said, “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” This was a testament to the love he had for his patients.

With a bit of encouragement from his wife Joan, Wight began to pursue a literary career focusing mainly on sports (football). His early works didn’t get much recognition nor interest from publishers.  

After six failed attempts at writing about football, Wight decided to turn his attention to his experiences as a veterinary surgeon in the Yorkshire countryside. Drawing inspiration from his many animalistic exploits and all the people he met on his daily visits, James Herriot wrote and published his first book in 1970 titled All Creatures Great and Small. The semi-autobiography was a hit in both the U.S and the U.K, earning him worldwide praise from critics and readers alike.

Wight had to use the pen name James Herriot for his books as vets were considered “gentlemen” during this era and were not allowed to advertise their work. He got his nickname from a Scottish goalkeeper, Jim Herriot, who played for Birmingham United in the late 60s and early 70s.

After watching a game where the goalkeeper was in excellent form, Wight kept hearing the commentator repeat Jim Herriot’s name. He picked up his Vets Directory, looked up and down, and to his surprise, no Herriot was listed as a vet, so he adapted James Herriot as his pen name.

Though Alf Wight was an Englishman who grew up in Glasgow, his character James had a Scottish accent. This confuses many readers, but Herriot considered himself a Glasgowian at heart, regardless of British roots.

Herriot’s first book, All Creatures Great and Small, was based on his ordeals as a vet in the British countryside. It was a collection of short stories that chronicled his veterinary escapades. Originally the books were written as fictional novels, but after being rejected by Collins, one of the publishers’ readers advised Herriot to write in the first person instead of the third. This turned out to be the best piece of advice and a turning point in the author’s career.

After the success of All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot went on to write another six books, including The Lord God Made Them All, Every Living Thing, and Dog stories, to name a few. His first book was adapted into a successful movie that was adapted into a television series.

Herriot passed away in 1995, leaving behind his wife and two children. Jim still runs his father’s veterinary practice and says his father will always be remembered as one of Britain’s most beloved authors. In 1979, he was awarded the title Order of the British Empire, a prestigious title in the world of literature.

James Herriot quotes

“A farmer once told me one of the greatest luxuries of his life was to wake up early only to go back to sleep again.”

“That is quotation about not having time to stand and stare has never applied to me. I seem to have spent a good part of my life – probably too much – in just standing and staring, and I was at it again this morning.”

Top-Rated Amazon Books from James Herriot

Here is a list of bestsellers by James Herriot that you can enjoy courtesy of Amazon. This list starts from Herriots’ first published book and ends with his fifth installment in his animal-based story series.

All Creatures Great and Small

Considered as a classic piece of literature by many reviewers, Herriot’s first published work, All Creatures Great and Small, was a marvel during its release in the 1970s. Everyone who has read calls it a page-turner.

The book is available in paperback, audiobook, and Kindle formats from Amazon.

The semi-autobiography is a culmination of short stories that portray a young James Herriot as he travels through rural Yorkshire as a field vet. This was a very different setting from the sanitized veterinary school in Glasgow.

The stories are described as both humorous and heartbreaking. One story, in particular, is about an old farmer who lived in a very remote location with his only companion being a very ill dog. Other stories are quite inspirational, like the poor farmers who would use their last dimes to get health care for their working animals. 

The book is a household favorite for all ages. With a 4.8 star rating on Amazon, this funny, heartwarming, and sometimes tragic collection of stories are great for Thanksgiving nights around a warm fireplace. A great addition to your collection.

The New York Times Book Review had this to say about the book:

“This warm, joyous and often hilarious, first-person chronicle of a young animal doctor shines with love and life.”

All Things Bright and Beautiful

The second edition of the multi-million-copy best-selling James Herriot series came in the form of All Things Bright And Beautiful

The book tells a story of a heart-warming journey of love, determination, and companionship from one of Britain’s most beloved authors. The stories featured in the book are from his early years as a country veterinarian. The humorous animal antics and eccentric farm owners make for a very light-hearted read suitable for the whole family. James Herriot’s masterpiece can be found on most platforms such as Kindle, paperback Audiobook, and CD. 

Reviewers had only positive things to say about the book, like this comment by the Boston Globe:

“Herriot is both tender and wise . . . All Things Bright and Beautiful is a book to be happy with.” 

All Things Wise and Wonderful

The third installment to James Herriot’s animal series was another critically acclaimed bestseller. 

All Things Wise and Wonderful is a memoir of a period in James Herriot’s life where he was still in the Royal Air Service. Herriot’s time in the service was anything but easy. Leaving his wife Joan, who was pregnant with his son in hopes of serving as a pilot, James was disappointed when he was downgraded to meteorologist due to health issues.

He ended up doing more role call and admin duties instead of being a pilot, which is what he initially intended to be. He gets leave to see his wife and newborn son while continuing his veterinary work in the British Countryside, and the crazy stories start from there.

The book is available on Amazon on Kindle, Audiobook, CD, Paperback, and hardcover formats.

The book makes for an excellent gift for your loved one, specifically those in long-distance relationships. It’s riddled with interesting and funny four-legged characters with personalities of their own, like the dog at the market square in chapter 33. 

The Lord God Made Them All

This best-seller was a sequel to All things wise and wonderful and the fourth in James Herriot’s animal book series. The book is available in Kindle and paperback formats on Amazon. 

The Lord God Made Them All is a recollection of a time where James Herriot had just returned from his service in the Royal Air Force. After World War II, Herriot returned home to his family and countryside patients who provided most of his material.

Whether they were gut-wrenchingly funny or downright sad, the stories provided great entertainment throughout each generation. It’s a great read for bookworms of all ages.

Steve Duno, the author of the Last Dog on The Hill, was quoted saying, “I recall reading All Creatures Great and Small many years ago while working as a veterinary technician. Herriot to me was a superhero of sorts, who taught me simple, heartwarming prose about people and their animals could become an art.”

Every Living Thing

The fifth and final installment in the James Herriot animal series is titled Every Living Thing. It’s available from Amazon in Paperback, Audiobook, hardcover, and Kindle formats.

This book is great for long-time fans of the James Herriot series as it revisits old characters like Tricki Woo, the eccentric farmer from the third book. It also introduces his children Rosie and Jimmy and a host of other notable characters such as Calum Buchanan, the uniquely strange vet.

This book is a perfect gift for someone leaving veterinary school (granted, they’ve read the other four books). It’s a great end to a marvelous collection of stories.

One of the readers named K. Mills left a comment on Amazon that read: “James Herriot takes you on a journey into the bygone days of being a vet after the war. Written with sad emotion in some parts and witty stories and characters in others. If you love animals in particular, then this book is a perfect treat. Loved reading every page.” 

Other books by James Herriot:

  1. Dog Stories (UK, 1981)
  2. If Only They Could Talk (UK, 1970)
  3. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (UK, 1972)
  4. Let Sleeping Vets Lie (UK, 1973)
  5. Vet in Harness (UK, 1974) 

How True Are the Stories About All Creatures Great and Small?

When James Herriot started writing All Creatures Great and Small, he wrote it in the third person. Even though most of his stories were true accounts, he wanted to present them as fiction. 

After countless rejections, one of the readers at Collins Publishers advised him to change his style to the first person variation that we know him for today. She told him that She could tell the stories were actual events and would be better told in the 1st person rather than narrated.

With that being said, some of the stories were fiction or derived from one of the many classic books that Herriot had in his collection. Most of his characters were actual people in his life. Such as the popular Zigfried Firman, which was the name he gave to Doctor Donald Sinclair, his senior at the Skeldale veterinary practice. 

Donald ran the practice with his younger brother Brian Sinclair. In the books, The Sinclairs had a cantankerous love-hate relationship which Brian believes was portrayed well on screen and the pages on All Creatures Great and Small. Donald felt that his portrayal by the academy award winner Anthony Hopkins was inaccurate and made him look impulsive and inconsistent.

His wife, Joan’s character, was Helen Anderson, who was not a farmer’s daughter but a secretary in Thirsk. Contrary to the book’s stories, Wight met Joan at a social gathering where he instantly fell for her and pursued her for a while, winning her from several eligible suitors. They married in 1941 and moved to Yorkshire, where they had two kids.

For dramatic or humorous purposes, Harriot would often use fictional stories. His factual accounts were just as effective, though, and his son Jim joined him for many of his visits in his later years.  

According to Jim, back in the 60s, they used to do over 20 visits a day to farms all over the countryside. The house they lived at the Skeldale Veterinary practice doubled as a home and a vet’s office, so it’s easy to see from where he drew his inspiration.

As most of the book’s stories were classified as semi-autobiographical, it’s safe to say there was a fair balance of fact and fiction in All Creatures Great and Small.

The book’s latest on-screen adaptation aired in January 2021 under the original title name. New viewers will be introduced to the titular Country Veterinarian, his adorable family, and eccentric characters, both furry and bald. 

A museum was erected at the old Skeldale veterinary office in honor of James Herriot and his work. Many of the instruments he used during his work can be found in his children’s old rooms. The first script for the movie adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small can also be found at the old house.

Our Favourite James Herriot Book of all Time

Out of all the best-selling masterpieces written by Herriot, we would recommend All things Wise and Wonderful, the third installment in this five-part animal book series. Why, you may ask? Well, this story is a little different from the others. 

While most of his stories were based in the countryside, Herriot focused a little more on his time in training as a Royal Air Force Pilot. 

The emotionally-driven humorous war-era story is a tale of overcoming disappointment, the importance of household, and the determination of a man who left his family behind to serve his country. 

When Herriot joined the Airforce, he initially wanted to be a pilot, and he kept himself in peak physical condition for the demanding job. 

Unfortunately, he did not make it into the Royal Air Force, but this brought him back to his true calling. Becoming a countryside vet was like a meeting with destiny for Herriot, as it opened him up to a whole new world of endless stories.

This is a truly inspirational story for families who have loved ones serving in any world conflict. It provides a sense of hope and restored faith in the concept of family and companionship.

Herriot’s stories were truly magical and transcended time. They can be enjoyed by people of all generations. There are a variety of lessons to be learned from the heart-warming stories, and future vets can learn a lot from the most famous British Vet.

With a 4.8 star rating on Amazon, it’s definitely worth the read and a perfect gift for your loved ones.

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