James Marnoch Hutcheon completed a pupil-teachership in Aberdeen with such credit that he was awarded a bursary to study at the Teacher Training College and University of Aberdeen. During his studies he became more interested in the ministry of the church and spent much time on mission work in Aberdeen and the surrounding districts. However, his interest in teaching, and in the then new academic discipline of geography, gained the upper hand. He obtained the degree Master of Arts (MA) at the University of Aberdeen and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
While still a student he got lost in the hills on a walking tour and spent a night unprotected against the sleet and snow, leading to a severe attack of rheumatic fever. This episode left him with a heart condition that would eventually cause his death.
Hutcheon came to the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope in 1913, in search of a more congenial climate. On the basis of his degree from the University of Aberdeen the University of the Cape of Good Hope admitted him to its MA degree that same year. He became a teacher at the South African College High School in Cape Town. As he had made a special study of geography he was appointed in addition (in 1915) as the first lecturer in geography at the South African College itself (which became the University of Cape Town in 1918). He resigned his post in 1917 to accept an appointment as the first lecturer in geography at the South African School of Mines and Technology in Johannesburg. This institution changed its name to the University College, Johannesburg, in 1920 and became the University of the Witwatersrand in 1922. He remained there until his death in 1921.
Hutcheon is regarded as the founder of the South African Geographical Society, the general organisation of which was based on that of the Scottish Geographical Society. At its inaugural meeting in Johannesburg on 8 June 1917 he explained the aims of the new society. His address was published as the first article in the South African Geographical Journal (1917), which was founded to record the society's proceedings. He was a joint vice-president of the society during its first year, served as president in 1918, and was the honorary editor of its journal from its inception to 1919. In 1913 he became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1915 read a paper on "Geography" that was published in the association's Report for that year (1915, pp. 326-333). During 1919/20 he was joint secretary of the association's Section B (which included geography). By 1917 he was a member also of the Royal Society of South Africa.
Hutcheon was married to Cecilia Johanna, born Wessels. They had no children.