Norman McLeod was born probably in 1778 or 1779. Although no records of his birth and marriage have been found he is said to have been born at Stoer Point, Sutherlandshire, Scotland, the son of Margaret and Daniel McLeod. His father was a fisherman. Norman married Mary McLeod, probably his cousin, about 1812. They had nine or ten children, only five of whom survived their parents.
McLeod's early life is shrouded in uncertainty and folklore. He is said to have undergone a religious conversion in his early 20s. After dabbling with several religious sects, he enrolled at the University of Aberdeen in 1807, graduating in 1812; he then spent two years at the University of Edinburgh, studying for the ministry. However, he did not complete his studies, withdrawing in protest over the worldliness and hypocrisy of his teachers.
McLeod taught in two church schools in the Highlands in 1814 and 1815; the first was in his native parish of Assynt and the second at Ullapool in Ross-shire. In each place he antagonised the local ministers and landlords by criticising their personal conduct and their theology. He was one of many lay preachers, known simply as 'the Men', who repudiated the liberalism of the established church and exhorted people to return to the rigorous principles of Knox and Calvin. McLeod's fervent preaching drew crowds away from the churches and he was eventually relieved of his positions.
After fishing for two years out of Wick, Caithness, McLeod emigrated in July 1817 to Pictou, Nova Scotia, on the Frances Ann. In Pictou McLeod again drew large crowds with his preaching and made enemies by criticising the ungodly ways of the townspeople. With his kinfolk and converts, by now known as Normanists, he built a ship, the Ark, and set out for the United States, intending to settle in Ohio, possibly in 1820. A storm blew the Ark into St Ann's Harbour, Cape Breton Island, where the travellers, impressed with the bounteous fishing, decided to settle.
St Ann's was a 'sober, industrious and orderly settlement', and contemporary observers credited its success to McLeod, who served as preacher, teacher and magistrate. McLeod was granted 250 acres, which were farmed for him by his parishioners. He owned a series of seagoing vessels and was probably involved in commercial fishing and trading. While resident in St Ann's he wrote long letters of spiritual guidance to adherents who had remained in Pictou. In 1827 he decided to complete his orders so that he could perform marriages. He was ordained by the Presbytery of New York in 1828. Always combative when it came to religion, he wrote a book characterised more by long-winded attacks on his enemies than by any coherent theology.
In 1847 potato blight and wheat rust attacked the crops of Cape Breton, reducing its inhabitants to starvation. Late in 1848 McLeod received a letter from his son, Donald, who was living in Australia. Donald wrote in such glowing terms of Australia's climate and conditions that many people from St Ann's and the neighbouring communities decided to emigrate. In 1851 McLeod set out in his ship, Margaret, arriving in Adelaide in April 1852. A second ship, Highland Lass, followed six months later. The 300 migrants arrived in Australia at the height of the Victorian goldrush. They found that good coastal land was available only at exorbitant prices. After a number of their group, including three of McLeod's sons, died in a typhoid epidemic, McLeod wrote to George Grey, governor of New Zealand, about obtaining a block of land on which all the Nova Scotian migrants could settle.
The first group of Normanists arrived in Auckland on 17 September 1853. One year later they began to settle on allotments on the Waipū River in Northland. Four more ships followed from Nova Scotia, Gertrude (1856), Spray (1857), Breadalbane (1858), and Ellen Lewis (1860). More than 800 people took part in the migration.
McLeod's 13 years in New Zealand were much less public and contentious than those of his previous life. He did not seek new converts, concentrating instead on providing spiritual guidance for his followers and an economic base for his family. He did not teach or serve as a magistrate, although the Nova Scotians followed the St Ann's tradition of instituting regular education and worship immediately on settling at Waipū. Mary McLeod died there on 7 March 1857.
McLeod continues to be a controversial figure in New Zealand history. His public denunciations of wayward parishioners earned him a reputation as an autocratic demagogue. His parishioners, however, saw him as a caring pastor and defender of the weak. One wrote, 'His nature and temper were very mysterious, often almost clashing with each other. One side was mild and lovely as could possibly be while the other was autocratic as could be'.
McLeod's uncompromising sense of moral righteousness committed him to guide his followers personally and to ensure that they could live together in material comfort and religious freedom. Norman McLeod died at Waipū on 14 March 1866.