James Barton is the brother of John Barton and father of Pete, Ross, Finn and Adam Barton (who was originally thought to be John's son). John and James became estranged and had not been in contact for the last years of John's life. James and wife Emma Barton were estranged from the time that Pete was a boy, Ross was a toddler and Finn was a baby, with Emma leaving the family for reasons that James never told his sons.
Following an argument with his son Ross that resulted in him leaving home, James arrived in Emmerdale in an attempt to patch things up with his son after being told of his whereabouts by his sister-in-law Moira. However, Ross was adamant a reunion wasn't on the cards and James left. Due to Pete being the only son to help out with the farm, and James spending much of his time looking for Ross, their family farm was past salvation, leading James and his sons to move to Emmerdale and become involved with Butlers Farm.
It is suggested over a period of weeks that James has feelings for Moira, and it is later revealed they had a dalliance many years ago. The night before a meeting about the farm's potential supermarket contract, James tells Moira that he still has feelings for her and believes she does for him too. She is angry and the following day she tells her boyfriend Cain Dingle.
In 2014, James begins to believe that his nephew Adam, the son of his late brother John, may, in fact, be his son, as he had a one night stand with Moira months before Adam's birth. Moira is eager to ignore James' questions, but he is adamant that Adam is his son. James secretly gets DNA proof that Adam is his son and tells Moira, but she begs him not to tell anyone. The first person he tells is Chas Dingle. Later, whilst watching an old video of the family, Moira and James are seen to be arguing in the background and it is later revealed that James is Adam's biological father. Adam has a violent reaction when he learns the truth, nearly shooting James and going further off the rails into drugs and criminal activities. Over a period of time, Adam accepts James as part of his life.
2015 sees the return of Emma after an absence of over 20 years, due to Finn's desire to find his mother. James and Pete in particular are adamant that she leave, and they soon tell Ross why - when he was a toddler, Emma tried to suffocate him. Emma insists that she had PPD, and her sons forgive her. During a quarrel with James, she kicks out at farm equipment as he's moving feed, leading him to suffer a serious injury. She plans to leave him to die until Pete stumbles upon them, causing her to spring into action with her nursing skills. Emma's old feelings for James return, and after various factors weigh down his relationship with Chas, he and Emma sleep together. After Chas finds out, she finishes with him for good, and he settles with Emma. An uneasy pattern of breakups and reconciliations begin as Emma can't stop herself from scheming.
In 2016, James begins interfering in Moira's life again following her breakup with Cain.
"You haven't changed." (First Line)
"Oh, there's plenty going on in her head that I don't care about. You take up so much of her time with your pathetic little dramas! Why don't you man up and face what you've done, instead of hiding behind your mummy? At least I've told people what I've done. Do the same, you coward." - to Aaron Livesy right before Aaron smashes a bottle of wine over his head.