He was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. When he was ten his family moved to a farm in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. 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, Alistair MacLeod taught English for three years at the University of Indiana before accepting a post in 1969 at the University of Windsor as professor of English and Creative Writing. He and his family return to Cape Breton every summer, however, where he spends part of his time "writing in a cliff-top cabin looking west towards Prince Edward Island."
Alistair MacLeod's writing career has been quite remarkable in earning him a great critical reputation on the basis of only fourteen short stories, collected in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986).
In 1999, he published his first novel, No Great Mischief, which follows the lives of several generations of a family that emigrates from Scotland to Cape Breton Island the setting of many of MacLeod's short stories. Written over the course of thirteen years, No Great Mischief was published to great critical acclaim and has been translated into a number of different languages. Nominated for all of Canada's major literary awards, the novel was awarded the Trillium Award, the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Dartmouth Book & Writing Award for Fiction, the Atlantic Provinces Booksellers Choice Award, the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
All of his published short stories, plus one new piece, were collected in Island, published in 2000.
His works are considered among the very best Canada has produced in the twentieth century.