Not to be confused with James VI and I, James I of Scotland was the son of Robert III, he was languishing in the Tower of London when his father died in 1406. Robert had feared for James's safety following the death of his elder brother, David. He attempted to send James to safety in France, but the ship carrying James to France floundered in a storm and was wrecked. James, 12 years old at the time, was seized by English pirates and eventually sent to the Tower of London as a prisoner. He was hardly an ordinary prisoner; James was well-treated, with his own tutors.

While James was in prison, the Duke of Albany ruled Scotland as regent. Albany was in no hurry to free his king, but was quite happy to enjoy the fruits of his own rule. When he died in 1420 he was succeeded by his son Murdoch, who carried on as regent and again, did little to get James freed from English hands.

James finally returned to Scotland in 1424. He was not slow to assert his control; he had the regent Duke of Albany executed for treason even before he was crowned at Scone.

James initiated new laws to improve peace and stability in his realm. He improved the rights of tenant farmers, improved governance of burghs and insisted that a variety of crops were planted to create a better diet. He initiated laws which today might be termed nature conservation measures, including rules to protect forests, fisheries, and nesting birds.

Less popular measures curtailed drinking times at inns and tried to outlaw football. He encouraged the practice of archery as an essential skill in times of war. He cut the power of the nobility by outlawing private armies. He threw warring Highland clan chiefs into prison to try to end hostilities between clans. This last measure might have been laudable, but was a wasted gesture, as the long-standing rivalries among the Highland clans proved too difficult to easily stop.

All these efforts by King James to curb the power of the nobles earned him some fierce enemies. None so fierce, however, as Sir Robert Graham. On 20 February 1437, when James and Queen Joan were staying at Blackfriars Monastery in Perth, Graham and eight armed supporters burst in and assassinated the king. The queen's retribution was swift and terrible. She had Graham and his men hunted down and savagely executed. Now Scotland once again entered a period of regency, for James and Joan's heir, James II, was only 6 years old when his father died.