Carlyle was abandoned by his mother at the age of four. Inspired after reading Arthur Miller's The Crucible, he enrolled in acting class at the age of 21, at the Glasgow Arts Centre. In 1991, he and four friends founded an acting company. He first came to the attention of the public as a psychotic murderer in an episode of Cracker (in which he killed Christopher Eccleston among others), but was soon playing a more sympathetic role, that of Highland policeman, Hamish McBeth, in the BBC comedy-drama of the same name.
In 1997, Carlyle got married to Anastasia Shirley. In 2002, she gave birth to their first child, daughter Ava.
Carlyle is perhaps best remembered for his work in The Full Monty, a comedy movie about a group of men who must perform striptease to earn their living.