He was born in Applegarth, Dumfriesshire, on 30 November 1776, the son of a farmer. He was educated at Dumfries Academy and Edinburgh University. He studied mathematics under Prof John Playfair. He was a friend of Thomas Telford and they collaborated on several projects
Following studies at the Firth of Tay, he was the first person in the world to calculate Mean Sea Level.
In 1819 he was appointed by the city to improve Edinburgh's water supply. He built a series of new reservoirs: Glencorse (1824), Threipmuir (1843), Harlaw (1848). Following this he was commissioned to undertake similar improvements in Perth, Dumfries and Glasgow. He re-engineered Loch Leven, reducing its water level by creating the Leven Cut, its first outlet. He did much of the engineering on the Union Canal, including creation of Cobbinshaw Reservoir as its water supply.
From 1826 he worked on the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway line, creating its St. Leonards branch, now commonly called the Innocent Railway. This includes a tunnel under the souther edge of Arthur's Seat plus the Glenesk Viaduct. He then embarked on other, more northerly railway projects: Ardrossan (1827), Threave (1825), Inveralmond (1827).
He died at home, 18 Queen Street, one of the most prestigious addresses in Edinburgh. He never married and had no children.
He is buried in Warriston Cemetery, in the upper section, on the main east west path near the old East Gate. He is buried with other family members including his nephew William Alexander Jardine (1811-1886) who was also a civil engineer.
He is known to have trained the railway engineer Alexander Adie. and the civil engineer James Anderson. He was a long time friend of the botanist Daniel Ellis who was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and they attended Society meetings together.
- Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index (PDF) I. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 10 February 2011.
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery, notes on display
- Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh by Gifford McWilliam and Walker
- Skempton, A. W. (2002). A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: 1500–1830. Thomas Telford. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-7277-2939-2.
- Gazetteer for Scotland: James Jardine