Adam Gifford was born at Edinburgh, Scotland on 29 February 1820, the eldest son of James Gifford and his wife Catherine Ann West. His father, rising from a comparatively humble position, became treasurer and master of the Merchant Company, an elder in the Secession church, and a zealous Sunday-school teacher. His mother was the only teacher of her sons Adam and John, till Adam was eight years old, when the boys were sent to learn Latin and Greek at a small school kept by John Lawrie. Later Adam Gifford was a pupil at the Edinburgh Institution. Like his father Adam became a Sunday-school teacher.
In 1835 Adam Gifford was apprenticed to his uncle, a solicitor in Edinburgh. While serving his apprenticeship he began studying at the university and became a member of the Scots Law Debating Society. Deciding to become an advocate he was called to the bar in 1849. His clear-headed thinking and persevering nature allowed him to develop an extensive legal practice. Because of his excellence and reliability as a defense lawyer specializing in equity cases, he soon became prosperous. In 1861 he was appointed an advocate-depute, in which capacity he prosecuted cases on behalf of the crown, including the famous murder trial of Jessy McLachlan. Though he was appointed sheriff of Orkney and Zetland, he continued his practice as an advocate.
On 28 January 1870 Gifford was nominated a judge, and on 1 February took his seat as associate judge in the Court of Session as Lord Gifford. Having experienced symptoms of paralysis as early as 1872, Lord Gifford nevertheless worked on until resigning 25 January 1881. He died 20 January 1887 and was buried on 27 January in the old Calton cemetery. He was survived by one son, Herbert James Gifford and his wife Maggie.
As a judge Lord Gifford was known to make up his mind quickly and to act independently and fairly. He had little respect for technicalities and had a penchant for reaching conclusions based on common sense. As a judge he was in great demand as a public lecturer but one whose lecture topics related less frequently to jurisprudence than to metaphysics and philosophical religion.
Lord Gifford's interest in philosophical religion was well-known in Edinburgh. After retiring in 1881 he gave lectures to popular audiences on such subjects as Emerson, substance, Hindu incarnationism, and St. Bernard. Ralph Waldo Emerson in fact had been something of a hero for Lord Gifford ever since 1843 when he heard a series of lectures by Emerson in Edinburgh. Emerson's transcendentalism appealed to Lord Gifford as did his later reading of Spinoza. He did not explore his own religious and metaphysical ideology to the point of answering the question of whether or not he believe God was a person. Of course it is out of this interest, this passion really, that Lord Gifford's bequest arises. To use his words he was "firmly convinced that the true knowledge of God ... when felt and acted on, is the means of man's highest well-being, and the security of his upward progress..."
"Adam Gifford" The Dictionary of National Biography, Volume VII Finch-Gloucester
Lord Gifford and His Lectures: A Centenary Retrospect, Stanley L. Jaki