At the end of the war, Finlay worked as a shepherd before beginning to write short stories and poems. He published books including The Sea Bed and Other Stories (1958) and The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960), and some of his work was broadcasted by the BBC.
In 1963, Finlay published Rapel, his first collection of concrete poetry (poetry in which the layout and typography of the words contributes to its overall effect), and it was as a concrete poet that he first gained wide renown. Eventually he began to inscribe his poems into stone, incorporating these sculptures into the natural environment.
This kind of environmental poetry features in his garden "Little Sparta" near Edinburgh, where he lives. The garden also includes more conventional sculptures and temple-like buildings as well as plants.
Finlay was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985.