Herdman was born in Rattray near Blairgowrie in Perthshire. He is known to have originally studied Divinity at the University of St. Andrews but abandoned this and came to Edinburgh in 1847 to train under Robert Scott Lauder as an artist. He was a friend of Professor John Stuart Blackie who instilled in him a love of the Celtic Revival reflected in his later works.

He is one of a group of artists called ‘The Blairgowrie Boys’.