Norman McLeod never intended to live at St. Ann's Harbour in Cape Breton. He began studying for the ministry in his native Scotland, but he disapproved of the practices of the Church of Scotland, which he considered insufficiently austere. In 1817, hoping for better things, he came to Pictou, Nova Scotia, where he began preaching fiery sermons, attracting appreciative audiences. Yet he considered Pictou’s Presbyterians too lax in their behaviour, so in 1819, McLeod set out to establish a settlement on the Ohio River where he had been invited to preach. With him was a small group of Gaelic-speaking followers from his home community of Assynt, Scotland. They included three Munro brothers, Donald “Squire” McLeod, and Norman MacDonald. As their schooner – dubbed The Ark by the irreverent Pictonians – rounded Cape Breton, they ran into a storm and took shelter in St. Ann's Bay. McLeod and his companions were so impressed by the beauty of the place that they changed their plans and decided to establish a community there.
The following year the pioneers were joined by more followers from Pictou. They built a church and a house for McLeod and his family. He had already gained a considerable reputation as a preacher, but he was not ordained. So, once the community was established, McLeod travelled to a Scottish settlement in New York where he was ordained as a minister. At last he officially became “The Reverend Norman McLeod.”
Back in Cape Breton, he was appointed magistrate and obtained a teacher’s licence, thus gaining control of many aspects of people’s lives. His sermons denouncing sin and threatening hellfire and damnation attracted large congregations, not only from his own flock but also from the surrounding area. He ran the community with a rod of iron, punishing any who deviated from his rigid standards of behaviour. He even denounced his wife from the pulpit for wearing what he considered to be an unsuitable hat to church.
The families who lived around the harbour carried on the same way of life they had practised in Scotland. They operated small farms and were encouraged by MacLeod to become self-sufficient to avoid contamination from the sinful outside world. As time went on, he became increasingly tyrannical, demanding obedience from all. He became estranged from his former companions who had minds of their own and did not readily submit to his every whim. Strict observation of the Sabbath was, of course, mandatory. He punished two boys who skated to church by making them cut a hole in the ice and throw in their skates. Even his family lived in fear of him, though it is said that on occasions when he was away, there was music and dancing in the house.
A bitter quarrel broke out between old friends when a son of Squire Donald McLeod took a fancy to Mary, one of Norman McLeod's daughters. Mary was allowed to see her suitor only in her father’s presence and could not leave the house unaccompanied. The Squire, who often had occasion to visit the manse, acted as go-between, bringing letters from his son to Mary. When the Reverend found out, he was furious. He publicly denounced his former friend, barred him from the church, threw him off the school board and made his life miserable. Another former friend, John Munro, whose shipping business had helped sustain the community for many years, suffered financial ruin when McLeod forbade his flock from dealings with him because Munro had allegedly carried rum in his ship.
McLeod’s intolerance and vindictiveness eventually brought hardship to the community, when, in 1848, there was a disastrous crop failure. Without provisions brought in by Munro, the community was on the verge of starvation. As if in answer to McLeod’s prayers, a letter from one of his sons, who had left for Australia, urged his father to join him there. Six ships were built, and in 1851, McLeod and hundreds of his flock bade farewell to St. Ann's and embarked for the long voyage.
They were joined later by others from the community, but neither the climate nor the lifestyle of Australia pleased McLeod. Rural New Zealand attracted him, and once again he moved his flock, founding a new settlement on the Waipu River on the North Island. Here, amidst scenery that reminded them of St. Ann's, they resumed their former way of life. Their leader, said to have mellowed in his later years, died there at the age of 86.