Son of John MacLeod (1730-1766) and Amelia Brodie (1730-1803). In 1772, he succeeded his grandfather, also named Norman (1705-1772) and nicknamed The Wicked Man. In addition to leaving him Dunvegan Castle and the chieftainship of Clan MacLeod, the elder MacLeod also left him with a sizable debt of about £50,000. He joined Fraser's Highlanders' 71st Regiment of Foot as a Captain in 1775 after growing weary of the situation on Skye and failing to pay off his debts. He spent several years serving in the East Indies, rapidly moving up the ranks until he was promoted to Major-General in 1794. In addition, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1790 and served as MP for Inverness-Shire from 1790 to 1796.
Following accusations of embezzelement in 1794, his latter years were beset by scandal. He gave up politics and turned to drinking before passing away in 1801 on the island of Guernsey.
Boswell and Dr Johnson first met MacLeod, who had recently become chief of his clan at the age of 17, as they arrived on Raasay.