James Bowman Lindsay was born in Cotton of West Hills, Carmyllie near Arbroath in Angus, Scotland, son of John Lindsay, farm worker, and Elizabeth Bowman. During his childhood he was trained as a handloom weaver. However at the same time he educated himself and his parents recognised their son's potential. As a result they saved enough money to be able to send him to St. Andrews University where he matriculated in 1821. As a student he soon made a name for himself in the fields of mathematics and physics and, after completing an additional course of studies in theology, he finally returned to Dundee in 1829 as Science and Mathematics Lecturer at the Watt Institution.