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Brought up in Rosyth, Fife, Buchan graduated with a degree in Mining from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh in 1969. He earned a Master's degree of Science in Mining Engineering from Queen’s University in 1972.
In 2009 he gave £6 million to his Canadian alma mater, Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, to fund mining education and, in his honor, the university renamed the Mining Engineering department the Robert M. Buchan Department of Mining. In September 2010 it was announced that Buchan was donating £1.3 million to his Scottish alma mater, to fund their work sustainable energy engineering, the largest donation the university has ever received from an individual. He has also donated £650,000 to help establish the Whitlock Energy Collaboration Centre at Carnegie College in Fife.
Buchan retired as president and chief executive of Kinross Gold Corporation January 10, 2005, going on to found Katanga Copper, the developer of one of the world's largest copper deposits. He retired from Katanga Copper in 2007. He remains executive chairman and director of Allied Nevada Gold Corp., a gold mining firm that operates the Hycroft mine and has a large number of prospective exploration claims in the state of Nevada.
Buchan is a director of the Buchan Family Foundation, a philanthropic body.
Mr Buchan was elected to the board of Polyus Gold International in June 2008  and was elected Chairman of the Board July 2011. He stepped down from the board in 2013. "Polyus Gold International" is a Russian mining and metallurgy conglomerate primarily concerned with the production of gold.
- "An Extraordinary Gift to Mining Education". Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario). Retrieved 3 August 2012.
- Donnelly, Brian (14 September 2010). "Magnate’s £1m gift of learning". The Herald (Glasgow). Retrieved 14 September 2010.
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