You may have heard of our much loved Yorkshire vet who became internationally famous as the author of whimsical, mostly autobiographical, tales of the life and work of a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales. Translated into 18 languages and with over 60 million copies sold worldwide, James Herriot's books and the film and TV series "All Creatures Great and Small" are hugely successful and retain an enduring appeal.
But James Herriot was a pseudonym. The real James Herriot was in fact a Scottish goalkeeper for Birmingham City football club, and it's an interesting story as to why the name was chosen.
James Alfred Wight (Alf to his friends) was born in 1917 and grew up in Glasgow, and qualified as a vet in 1939. After a short spell as a vet in Sunderland, he applied for a position in a country practice in Thirsk, meeting the inimitable Donald Sinclair (who became Siegfried in the books). In 1940 he was offered a job in the practice where he was to stay for the rest of his career except for a short spell in the RAF during World War II.
Alf married Joan Danbury, a secretary at a local corn mill in Thirsk (Helen in the books) and had a son and a daughter who later went on to become a vet in the same practice and GP, respectively.
It was Joan who prompted Alf to take up writing, which he did at the relatively late age of 50.
In 1969 Alf Wight was delighted to be told that his book, "If only they could talk" with the author's given name of James Wight was to be published by Michael Joseph Ltd.
However, the Royal Society of Veterinary Surgeons had very strict rules about professional conduct, and to publish a book about your own work (however fictionalised) under your real name would have been construed as advertising, and could have resulted in Alf losing his practice. So, Alf had to think up a pseudonym, which was a surprisingly difficult task for a man who needed to like and approve of whatever name was chosen. Several candidates were considered and rejected.
On the evening of 11th Feb 1969 Alf sat down to watch a football match on television. It was the 5th round of the FA cup and two great teams were playing - Manchester United and Birmingham City. The charismatic Birmingham goalkeeper was a 'Jim Herriot', and Alf decided he liked the sound of his name. Checking his copy of the Veterinary Register to his surprise and delight he found that there wasn't a James Herriot registered as a vet...and the rest is history.
Little did Alf Wight know on that evening that this famous goalkeeper who was capped eight times by Scotland would win even greater accolade as the nom-de-plume known to millions.
Alf loved the Yorkshire countryside, particularly the Yorkshire Dales, and retired to Thirlby, near Sutton Bank, where he would walk his dogs. He called the view from Sutton Bank the finest view in England.
Visitors now flock to Thirsk to seek out the ‘real James Herriot’ at the visitor centre ‘The World of James Herriot’ created from Alf's original vet surgery. This includes rooms furnished according to the period, a 4,000 piece archive of veterinary instruments, information about the films and TV series, a statue of James Herriot and a vintage car used in the filming of All Creatures Great and Small.
In 1977 the TV series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ began – starring Christopher Timothy(James), Robert Hardy (Siegfried) and Peter Davison (Tristan). It went on for many episodes, through the 1970s and 1980s with villages such as Askrigg in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, becoming famous as Darrowby.
‘James Herriot’s Yorkshire’, published in 1979 was a roaring success, selling more than half a million copies in the USA. Again visitors flocked to Thirsk (often turning up at the practice) and the Yorkshire Dales to see the landscapes and places mentioned in the book. As well as those already mentioned, Harrogate was popular as a place where Alf would go with his wife Joan to Bettys once a week.
Alf Wight died in 1995 leaving a lasting legacy. We are grateful for his wit and gentle humour, and salute the Scottish goalkeeper who gave him his name. And what became of the original Jim Herriot? He returned to Scotland after his playing days to become a bricklayer in Strathclyde.
This man has always been one of my favorites, I have most of his books. Reading them is a great way to learn also.