A PHOTOGRAPH on the wall. Skewered to a corkboard with a single white drawing pin, it hangs one photograph among a jumble of many, one face in the cluttered collage of friends and family which covers two walls of a living room. A young man gazes out, blank and enigmatic, holding a board to his chest, named and numbered. This is 32-year-old Sam Martinez in 1941, before he left his home country of Belize, then British Honduras, to go to Scotland. The black and white shot was for his passport, taken at a point of chance, risk, hope and possibility. Martinez, now 96, recalls that young man. "I always say life was like this once ago, " he says, drawing his hands out wide.

"But now it's closing. At 96 it's pretty close." His hands close to form a narrow channel: a picture of perfect health for most of his life, he had his first health scare, a heart problem, last year. "At 32 I thought life was wonderful, wide open. But now it could close any day. I'm 96. . . but thank God I've reached that."

In 1941 Martinez was working as a woodcutter in the forests of British Honduras, felling mahogany trees with broad trunks, sometimes 5ft in diameter. It would often take one man a day to axe one of these to the ground. The work was hard and manual, but Martinez had no complaints. His family were plantation people from the town of Punta Gorda in the south, and he knew the meaning of work: if you didn't work, you didn't eat.

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"Whatever we produced we could sell some and give away some, and live. If you made a dollar, or two dollars, or whatever you made, you divided it between your family. That's how we used to work. But since then, times have changed. It was enjoyable. That was your daily bread and when you got paid that was your money. I didn't depress myself, and I never found myself downhearted."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world from this former British colony, Britain was involved in a war which was rapidly draining its resources. Wood, though still fairly plentiful in the forests, was in short supply because of lack of labour to log and cut it. In 1941 the British forestry commission gave itself a target to produce 5.7 million tonnes and launched a Commonwealth-wide recruitment drive. Twenty companies came from Canada and 900 men from British Honduras, all taking the precarious trip across an Atlantic haunted by German U-boats. They came as much because they wanted to contribute to the war effort as for the work.

Martinez recalls his own response. "We were British, we belonged to the British empire, so we subdued ourselves to that and we looked upon Britain as our guardians. That was the mother country and we were very willing and happy to come here during the war and do our bit for the mother country. We heard about the war and the destruction that was going on, and didn't hesitate. We volunteered to come in good spirit, prepared for anything. We knew the soldiers had suffered and we were prepared to suffer the same."

Martinez took the boat from Belize City, sailing to New Orleans and travelling by train on to New York before crossing to Glasgow. He remembers the endless convoy of boats in that 14-day transAtlantic journey, stretching out as far as the eye could see, so far that it seemed to him that even if one of the boats was torpedoed, he wouldn't know. The weather was calm. Often they would walk on deck, and Martinez recalls that they weren't allowed to smoke. One lighting of a cigarette, they were told, might be enough light to attract the attention of the enemy. His berth was in the bottom deck and he could hear the water beating on the sides. "If we were torpedoed, " he says, "we would be the first to die - but we were prepared for all that. And also, we felt quite safe, because it was the British, British ships."

The Hondurans arrived in Glasgow on November 26 and were divided into groups and sent to their camps scattered across Scotland: Golspie, Kinlochewe, Duns, Ullapool, Tranent. Snow was knee-deep when Martinez arrived at his camp which was near Ullapool, and they started work immediately. There have been books and films about the work of the British Honduran Forestry Unit. In 1984, Amos Ford published Telling The Truth: The Life And Times Of The British Honduran Forestry Unit In Scotland, an attack on the attitudes of British establishment, public and government, to the men.

Ford declared that, "from the creation of the Unit and its transportation to the UK to their settling in, all was to be accompanied by suffering, humiliation and in the end, right up to their return to British Honduras, disillusionment with the venture". He cited inadequate clothing, threadbare mittens, huts poorly built to withstand the Scottish winter, uncovered trucks for transport, lack of pay when they did not work because of the weather. He even quotes an exchange of letters between the Duke of Buccleuch and the then cabinet minister Harold Macmillan.

The letters reveal shocking attitudes. The Duke begins by writing to complain that the men are not only lazy at work, but flirting and fraternising with the locals. "The people of the neighbourhood, " he continues, "were encouraged to be friendly to them and the girls have interpreted this rather widely. As reports are coming in to me, I have made such enquiries as I could from local residents and learned that there have been a number of marriages and births and much intercourse is allowed even in the camp itself. I would have preferred absolutely definitive evidence before writing to you. Personally, I dislike this mixture of colour and regret that it should be allowed with no discouragement. There are already sufficient births of 'foreign extraction' in the country without additional complication of colour."

Macmillan replies saying that he has visited a number of the camps. "When the men first came here, they were, " he writes, "I think, not lazy, but intolerably cold. They arrived in the cold English winter from a climate which I understand is never less warm than the most highly heated hothouse in our old-fashioned gardens. They therefore shivered and huddled themselves together and really did not begin to thaw out until spring."

Martinez, now the last of these Belizean lumberjacks, still living in Scotland, recalls no such experience. A resolutely positive man, with a cup so half full it's spilling over, he refuses to get drawn into any negativity. He smiles often. "Peace, perfect peace, " he repeats. He talks of good health and hard work. "Harmonise with each other."

And he never complains. "So long as we were keeping well, " he says of his time in Ullapool, "that was the main thing. What's the use of moaning? Make yourself comfortable. Put on your warm suit and your warm boots. I am an all-weather person. I made my mind up that if I'm helping, then that's what's important. If I am helping I can handle anything in life."

He recalls the huts along the banks of Loch Broom, the dances and parties, and friendships with the locals. Did he strike up any relationships with local women? "We were just friends with people." He says. "I didn't think any one of us tried to make confusion. We were all strangers trying to build a bridge to be happy. And that was all our aim was. I couldn't say much about the ones down south, but in Ullapool, I can vouch, we were no danger. We had a great time and the people were very nice to us, and we didn't want to hurt that feeling." Still, there were hardships. It was undoubtedly cold. You can tell that even from the photographs of the time. Some are reproduced in Ford's book, heavy with snow, geographically puzzling. This is Scotland, yes, but who are these black, uniformed men in a Scottish countryside which at the time was almost uniformly white?

In 1943, before the war was over, the unit was disbanded and the loggers given the choice between repatriation or taking their chances in Britain. Many went back, which wasn't necessarily the easy choice. They were returning to 30-per cent unemployment and, little did they know it, on the way, a short internment on Ellis Island as illegal immigrants, the result of a British beaurocratic bungling. Martinez decided to stay in Scotland. Along with many other remaining loggers, he began the next phase of his British life in an Edinburgh youth hostel. There, he worked as a cook and made lunch for Harold Macmillan when he visited the hostels. He cooked kippers, vegetables and custards, and was congratulated by Macmillan on having made the best lunch he had ever tasted.

"We were on rations, so he knew I was good if I could make a meal for him out of rationed food." Jobs were plentiful at the time, and he quickly moved on to a string of other employments: building; as a cleaner in a milk factory; in a paper mill at Balerno. Over the last 60 years he hasn't pined for his home country. "I never miss anything. My mind was made up not to miss anything. Life goes on, whatever happens happens, and you can't stop it."

There are three generations in the Martinez house in Wester Hailes when I visit. It's not just the son that sits reading the newspaper, or the grandson who lounges on the sofa, but the chatter of many more Martinez that line the walls in photographs, pictures of grandchildren, nephews, nieces, family get-togethers, a riotous sprawl of British-Belizean faces. Sam Martinez likes to keep his family around him. Born in 1910, the fifth child of ten, and the only one who came to Britain, he was the product of a big family, and finds his greatest satisfaction in it.

"I look at them before I go to bed and I look at them when I get up in the morning, " he says. "I could live another 100 years. They stimulate my health. That's my belief and I believe it keeps you going."

Meanwhile Mary Martinez sits next to her husband. "Five years, " she keeps saying, "we got together five years ago." When her grandson questions her, she says, "Is it that? All right, more like 50 then." She tells the story of the night they met at a dance hall: Tony's in Leith. He asked her to dance, and a little charmed by this charismatic, handsome British Honduran, she did: but went home with another man. Still he pursued her, and in the end won her over. However, her parents weren't so convinced. Here was a man 20 years her senior and not at all what they'd been hoping for. Martinez sums it up more briefly: "I met her at the dance. Just happened. . . just clicked. These things are easily done."

They are, they joke, local celebrities. Last year Martinez appeared in a documentary about the forestry unit, The Tree Fellers, but it's not just that that makes him such a well-known face. "Everybody knows Sam, " he says. "All over Edinburgh, you talk about Sam, and in most parts they'll tell you they know me very well. I've been in Edinburgh so long and I follow the football. I'm a Hibs supporter and I've travelled with Hibs. I used to go dancing too."

People, he says, might know him from when he used to sweep the streets or just through work, because he mixed well with other people. "Some person will meet you and say, 'We've heard about you for a long time . . . pleased to meet you.' I'm known. You cannae miss me. Especially when you come to Wester Hailes and say 'wee Sammy', everybody knows who you're talking about." Even when I was on the phone to arrange the interview, and Martinez was giving me directions to his home in Wester Hailes, he said, "If you get lost, just ask for Sam Martinez. There's only one Sam Martinez around here and everybody knows him."

Martinez has a pride in his Britishness. When he was a child his family moved from Punta Gorda to Belize City, where he went to school and was taught in English, the same sort of subjects as might have been on the curriculum of any British school: maths, geography, science, British history.

Probably, he believes, he knew British history better than most British people. He remembers, during his time at Ullapool, being invited on holiday by a local friend. They visited London and went to the Tower of London where they were given a guided tour. "This guide, " he says, was explaining about the history, and I had learnt everything he was saying. It seemed so strange that these people were taking in everything he said, but I just looked at the crown jewels because I knew about it."

Since leaving Belize in 1941, Martinez has been back only once, 15 years ago, taking Mary with him. The country had changed dramatically. "Before I left home we used to travel by boats and canoes. But now they don't travel by boat any more. It's buses and cars and the roads are all built. They even have electricity and gas now. There were only 100,000 people in British Honduras at the time I left, but now there are nearly 400,000. The politics? I don't know what is the politics now. But I think it's still the same palaver. The government will do this and do the next, just like in Britain."

All but one of Martinez's brothers and sisters have died yet, despite his protestations, at 96, he still looks open enough for a further arms-width of experience, willing, for instance, for our photographer to balance a small tree on his head, smiling as he does so.

"Life has been good to me, " he says. "Healthy but poor. But if you're healthy, you're rich. That's how I look at life, nice and easy. Don't worry over things that don't matter. Don't fight with people, don't argue with people. Peace, perfect peace. Because life is only once, that ticket only goes one way and there's no return."

So says the man, who in 1941, sailed off on a ticket with no return.