James Low was born in 1791 at Causland in Scotland. Low graduated from Edinburgh College and was then nominated for a cadetship in the East India Company's Madras Army in 1812. He was accepted and embarked from Portsmouth on the East Indiaman, Astell, which reached Madras in July 1812. During the first five years, Low acquired military competencies and language skills. In May 1817 Low was appointed Adjutant, and then promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in August of the same year. In January 1819 Low moved to the East India Company's settlement in Penang and spent the rest of his career in and around the Straits of Malacca. In 1820 he was given command of the Penang Local Corps until the corps was disbanded in 1827.
Low's mission to Siam was the second undertaken, following John Crawfurd's first mission that was mainly concerned with resolving the legal status of Penang. This second mission of 1824 under Low's command was prompted by the British declaration of war on Burma. Its aim was to enlist the support of the Raja of Ligor, who was in command of most of the Siamese territories on the west coast of the peninsula including Kedah, for the planned British move up the Irrawaddy river. Low described the events of the mission in a report on his Public Mission to His Highness the Rajah of Ligor, and in more detail in his Journal of a Public Mission to the Rajah of Ligor. Low also produced a map of Siam, Cambodia and Laos.
After his mission to Ligor, he was posted to Tenasserim where he produced more maps and landscape drawings. In 1826, Low was promoted to Captain and was sent on other missions to the Malay state of Perak. Shortly after, he was appointed Superintendent of Lands in Province Wellesley in Penang, a post he held until 1840 when he was made Assistant Resident of Singapore. He finally retired in 1845 but returned to Edinburgh only in 1850, where he died just two years later.