Finlay was born of humble parents at Glasgow. He was educated in one of the academies at Glasgow, and at the age of 14 entered the university, where he had as a classmate John Wilson ('Christopher North'), who states that he was distinguished "above most of his contemporaries."
While only 19, and still at the university, he published Wallace; or, The Vale of Ellerslie; and other Poems in 1802, dedicated to Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop, the friend of Burns, a second edition with some additions appearing in 1804, and a third in 1817. Professor Wilson describes it as displaying "a wonderful power of versification" and possessing "both the merits and defects which we look for in the early compositions of true genius."
The prospect of obtaining a situation in one of the public offices led him to visit London in 1807, and while there he contributed to the magazines some articles on antiquarian subjects. Not finding suitable employment he returned to Glasgow in 1808, and in that year he published Scottish Historical and Romantic Ballads: Chiefly ancient; with Explanatory Notes and a Glossary. As the title indicates, the majority of the ballads were not his own composition, but Sir Walter Scott nevertheless wrote of the book: "The beauty of some imitations of the old Scottish ballads, with the good sense, learning, and modesty of the preliminary dissertations, must make all admirers of ancient lore regret the early loss of this accomplished young man." 
He also published an edition of Blair's Grave, wrote a life of Cervantes, and superintended an edition of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. In 1810 he left Glasgow to visit Professor Wilson at Ellerlay, Westmoreland, but on the way thither was seized with illness at Moffat, and died there at the age of 28.
- Wallace; or, The vale of Ellerslie]; with other poems. Glasgow: Chapman & Lang, 1802
- revised & expanded, Glasgow: R. Chapman, 1804.
- Scottish Historical and Romantic Ballads: Chiefly ancient. Glasgow: J. Ballantyne, for J. Smith, 1808.
Henderson, Thomas Finlayson (1889) "Finlay, John" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 19 London: Smith, Elder, p. 31 . Wikisource, Web, June 19, 2016.</ref>
- John Finlay (1782-1810) at English Poetry, 1579-1830
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Finlay, John