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James was born in about 1849, the son of Alexander MacLeod and Flora MacLeod of old Ruisgarry, then croft 2 Ruisgarry. The family moved to Grenitote, North Uist in 1854, returning to 'house 7' Quay a few years later. James became a fisherman, marrying Margaret MacDonald in 1879. They were to have six children together, living near his parents at 'house 11' Quay. In 1881 his elderly aunt Ann MacLeod was living in his household.