James was born in Kelso on 5th January 1816. He was sent to school at the age of six were he excelled in arithmetic and elementary mensuration. His father removed him from school when he was twelve and set him to work with him on the estate of Broomlands Farm, with the idea of James becoming a landscape gardener.
A chance meeting with Mr Alexander Adie who was surveying the grounds and being allowed to assist him made James realise he wished to be an engineer. This he did and worked on many landmark constructions, a scheme for the Channel Tunnel was one. In 1886 he received a knighthood. He died at his home in Wimbledon on 2nd June 1892 and is buried with his family.