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James was born in 1826, the son of Roderick MacLeod and Marion Campbell of Pabbay, then Borgh Mhor.
He married Salvia MacLean, with whom he was to have seven children. They made their home in Ardhasaig, North Harris near his brother Duncan, later moving to Quay on the island of Berneray, where James worked as a fisherman. They stayed there until the 1870s, when the family moved to become cottars on Newton Farm.