I’ve no regrets about staying here – but it’s still cold, man
Sam Martinez grins broadly. "Life in Scotland has been wonderful," says the 95-year-old retired lumberjack from Belize. He is sitting on a chair in his home in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, reminiscing about life in his adopted homeland. Mr Martinez was one of 900 men recruited from the former British colony in Central America, which lies on the Caribbean Sea, to Scotland in the 1940s to help in the fight against Nazism. As volunteers felling trees to keep Britain's mines working for the war effort, the Belizeans became popular figures in the logging camps they lived in around Scotland, from the central belt to the far north of the Highlands.
Mr Martinez stayed on after the war to make a new life and today he is the last Belizean lumberjack alive in Scotland. He leans forward and speaks with a strong accent which betrays his roots. "We all wanted to contribute to the fight against Hitler and to help Britain. "As a colony we considered ourselves British and we all wanted to help the 'mother country'. I really wanted to come to Scotland," he says.
His journey from the-then British Honduras to Glasgow, began in 1941. Mr Martinez, 32 at the time, was a mahogany worker in Punta Gorda Town when he and his compatriots were called on to support Britain. "I was one of 10 children and my father was a woodcutter too. I was born in Punta Gorda and schooled in Belize City. Being a colony, we were taught about British history at school and I knew all about Scotland. When the war started we were prepared for anything," Mr Martinez says. When the plea for workers came, hundreds of men immediately volunteered, leaving behind the humid sub-tropical climate of Belize for the biting cold winters of Scotland.
First they sailed to New Orleans before travelling by train to the eastern seaboard. In November, 1941, a convoy of 1000 ships left New York embarking on a 14-day voyage through freezing Atlantic seas while playing cat and mouse with German U-boats. "We were treated as soldiers. The journey wasn't that pleasant and we knew the Germans would try to pick off some of the boats. But we were fine and had a safe journey," Mr Martinez recalls. Two weeks later, he and his countrymen saw Scotland for the first time when they sailed up the River Clyde to Glasgow. "I can only really remember everyone getting off the ship and being directed towards buses to shuttle us off to camps around Scotland. I remember it was cold, though," he says.
Destinations for the travel-weary Belizeans included Golspie in Sutherland, a camp near Edinburgh and Ullapool in Wester Ross, where Mr Martinez would be based for the duration of the war with about 50 others. The lumberjacks were exposed to freezing temperatures and saw snow for the first time in their lives. "We were knee-deep in the stuff and it was very, very cold. For the first two weeks I wore my boots and uniform to bed and had six blankets," Mr Martinez admits, mimicking a shiver before breaking into another smile.
Despite the harsh weather conditions and the long working days, he remembers the period as one of the happiest of his life, and he made many friends both at the camp and in Ullapool. "I remember the first day we went into town. The children were all running about the streets shouting 'look at the coal men, look at the coal men'. It was the first time they had seen black men. But the people were wonderful – really wonderful, and they would throw parties for us and entertain us," Mr Martinez says.After the war the Belizean men were thanked by Britain for their service and given the opportunity of remaining in the country.
Mr Martinez decided his future was in Scotland and moved to a hostel in Edinburgh where he worked as a cook. "I remember when Harold Macmillan (who served in Winston Churchill's cabinet during the war) visited us to thank us for working and I made him kippers, vegetables and a cream custard. After the meal he came to the kitchen and said it was one of the best lunches he had ever eaten," he says. It was in Edinburgh that he met his wife Mary, marrying her in 1955. They moved into a home in Edinburgh's Old Town and he took on a variety of jobs. The couple have lived in Edinburgh ever since, raising a family of six who all live in the city apart from one daughter who lives in Mexico.
As for Belize? "I visited once, about 15 years ago. But staying in Scotland was the best choice I ever made. I have no regrets – although it's still cold man, still cold, man," he says laughing.