When MacLeod was ten his family moved to a farm in Dunvegan, Inverness County on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. After completing high school, MacLeod attended teacher's college in Truro and then taught school. He studied at St. Francis Xavier University between 1957 and 1960 and graduated with a BA and B.Ed. He then went on to receive his MA in 1961 from the University of New Brunswick and his PhD in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame. A specialist in British literature of the nineteenth century, MacLeod taught English for three years at Indiana University before accepting a post in 1969 at the University of Windsor as professor of English and creative writing. During the summer, his family resided in Cape Breton, where he spent part of his time "writing in a cliff-top cabin looking west towards Prince Edward Island."