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John was born in 1831, the son of Norman MacLeod and Ann Shaw of old Borve. His mother died when he was about four years old and his father remarried, moving the family to Quay.
John became a servant, later a boat carpenter. In 1867 he married Rachel Paterson in Boisdale, South Uist. Together they were to have seven children, making their home at Quay. Along with other men on Berneray, he gathered peat on the island of Sùrsay in the Sound of Harris, and was so agile when carrying a heavy load on his back that a steep decline was named for him - Ceum Iain Oig.
At a time of unrest on Berneray, he became involved in the struggle to regain the use of the land taken for Borve Farm. In 1893 he helped to waylay the tacksman's boat, cutting down its sail. This came to be known as the Reef incident. John and three other islanders were imprisoned at Inverness as punishment. He died of pleurisy later that year.