James Oswald was born in Crail, Fife, and worked in Dunfermline in the 1730s as a dancing master. He lived in Edinburgh until 1941, when he eloped to London with the woman who was to become his wife.
Oswald set up a publishing firm and published several books of Scottish tunes, including the twelve-volume Caledonian Pocket Companion. His books often contained some of his own compositions.
In 1761 he was appointed Chamber Composer to King George III.