Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1906, Ian Finlay returned to Scotland with his parents and was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University. In 1932, Finlay joined the staff of the Royal Scottish Museum, where he would eventually become director. He married Mary Pringle just before the onset of World War II. During the war, he was assigned to the Ministry of Information and was named deputy regional information officer for Scotland from 1942 to 1944.
In 1955, Finlay was promoted to curator of the department of art and ethnography in the Royal Scottish Museum. Shortly following his promotion, Finlay pursued his passion of Scottish fine metals and wrote Scottish Gold and Silver Work, later revised by Henry Steuart Fothringham.
Finlay was director of the museum from 1961 until his retirement in 1971. As director, he developed and created a building program for the museum, an education department, and a program of public lectures at the museum’s lecture theatre. In 1965, he was awarded the honor of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). After his retirement in 1971, Finlay held the position of Professor of Antiquities to the Royal Scottish Academy until his death. In addition to his writing on Scottish gold and silver, he published a work on museology, Priceless Heritage, in 1977, followed by one on St. Columba (521-597) in 1979. Finlay died in 1995 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
During his life, Finlay made many BBC broadcast talks on art and other topics. His influence on the Royal Scottish Museum and on the rejuvenation of its programs remains one of his greatest accomplishments.