He was the son of Robert Buchanan (1813-1866), Owenite lecturer and journalist, and was born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, England. Buchanan senior, a native of Ayr, Scotland, lived for some years in Manchester, then moved to Glasgow, where Buchanan junior was educated, at the high school and the university, one of his fellow-students being the poet David Gray. His essay on Gray, originally published in the Cornhill Magazine, tells the story of their close friendship, and of their journey to London in 1860 in search of fame.
Buchanan's first published works were books of poetry written while he was still living in Glasgow. He appears to have disowned them later in life as they fail to appear in any bibliographic references. His first book was Poems and Love Lyrics which although undated was almost certainly published in 1858. This date has been settled upon for the following reasons: 1) The author's second book Mary and other Poems is by the 'Author of Lyrics'. This book is dated 1859 and signed Robt W Buchanan in the preface; 2) The preface to 'Mary' states that this is the author's second published book; 3) The preface indicates that the writer is still a young man; 4) The dedication to Hugh Macdonald suggests he was alive when it was written. Macdonald, a well-known Glaswegian, died in 1860. Buchanan's second book Mary and other Poems was published in 1859 and has never been mentioned in any bibliographies. The book is extremely rare and the only copies appear to be in the Mitchell library in Glasgow. Buchanan also published a collection of short stories and poems, written in collaboration with Charles Gibbon, entitled Storm-beaten, or Christmas Eve at the "Old Anchor" Inn in 1862, before Undertones, which is often cited as Buchanan's first book.
After a period of struggle and disappointment Buchanan published Undertones in 1863. This tentative volume was followed by Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865), London Poems (1866), and North Coast and other Poems (1868), wherein he displayed a faculty for poetic narrative, and a sympathetic insight into the humbler conditions of life.
Buchanan showed more ambition in The Book of Orm: A Prelude to the Epic, a study in mysticism, which appeared in 1870. He was a frequent contributor to periodicals, and obtained notoriety as a result of an article which, under the nom de plume of Thomas Maitland, he contributed to the Contemporary Review for October 1871. Entitled The Fleshly School of Poetry, this article was expanded into a pamphlet (1872), but he subsequently withdrew from the criticisms it contained, and it is chiefly remembered by the replies it evoked from Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a letter to the Athenaeum (December 16, 1871), entitled The Stealthy School of Criticism, and from Algernon Swinburne in Under the Microscope (1872).
Buchanan afterwards regretted the violence of his attack, and the old enemy to whom God and the Man is dedicated was Rossetti. In 1876 The Shadow of the Sword, the first and one of the best of a long series of novels, was published. Buchanan was also the author of many successful plays, including Lady Clare, produced in 1883, Sophia (1886), an adaptation of Tom Jones; A Man's Shadow (1890), and The Charlatan (1894). He also wrote, in collaboration with Harriett Jay, the melodrama Alone in London. In 1896 he became, so far as some of his work was concerned, his own publisher. In the autumn of 1900 he had a paralytic seizure, from which he never recovered. He died at Streatham.
Buchanan's poems were collected into three volumes in 1874, into one volume in 1884; and as Complete Poetical Works (2 vols., 1901). Among his poems should also be mentioned:
His earlier novels, The Shadow of the Sword, and God and the Man (1881), a striking tale of a family feud, are distinguished by a certain breadth and simplicity of treatment which is not so noticeable in their successors, among which may be mentioned:
See also Harriett Jay, Robert Buchanan; some Account of his Life (1903).