LAST year I read Professor Tom Devine’s comprehensive and engaging history of the Scottish diaspora, To the Ends of the Earth, and was stunned to discover that Jamaica had a crucial and disturbing historic link with our shores.

During the 18th and 19th century, when slavery was the dominant economic force, many of the sugar plantations on the island were operated and owned by Scots.

None of this had been in the economic history syllabus I studied at university. The Scottish role in the eventual emancipation of slaves was the more resonant tale in the classroom.

According to Devine, not only had Scottish planters in Jamaica bought thousands of slaves straight off the boat and put them to back-breaking work in the sugar cane fields, but the huge profits they made in the process had boosted the Scottish economy in all sorts of ways.

Our ancestors back home obtained cheap sugar from the Caribbean to sweeten tea and provide cheap, energy-laden foods while the massive profits that flowed from the West Indies turbo-charged Scottish industries such as fishing, weaving, railways and mining.

In addition, huge country estates, mansions and even schools were built all over Scotland with the filthy lucre that slaves generated for nearly 150 years in the hot Caribbean sun.

A year ago, with the referendum looming large in the national psyche and our collective values being rightly scrutinised, I couldn’t help wondering how we had conspired to forget this episode in our history?

I read more on the subject from tenacious historians such as Eric Graham, Sir Geoff Palmer and Stephen Mullen, who have been filling in the gaps in our knowledge. And as I read more, I began to wonder if there might be an opportunity for me to visit Jamaica and use my camera to add a layer of evidential imagery to what they have uncovered about Scotland’s role in the era of mass slavery.

A PORTRAIT of Robert Cunninghame-Graham of Gartmore and Ardoch hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in the room next to our Document Scotland exhibition, The Ties That Bind.

It is the work of one of our most famous artists, Henry Raeburn. Cunningham-Graham came from noble stock and lived in grandeur at Gartmore House, near Aberfoyle, but he was also a bit of a poet and seems to have become a patron of Robert Burns, who described him as “the noblest instance of great talents, great fortune and great worth that ever I saw”.

But Cunningham-Graham was also a slave owner. In Jamaica the Great House of his 800-acre sugar plantation, Roaring River, still looks down from a limestone plateau on the north coast of the stunning Caribbean. These days the house, which is in a state of disrepair, is owned by the Jamaican government and is looked after by a lone security guard and his dog.

As you gaze from the massive white-wooden veranda you can see a huge man-made gash through the green agricultural land. Bulldozers are busy laying a new north-to-south highway that will cut the journey time from the Jamaican capital, Kingston, to the tourist resorts on the north coast by several hours.

A state-owned Chinese company is building the road, which is costing the Jamaican Government next to nothing. In return for carrying out this massive construction project with Chinese labourers, who are billeted in mobile camps along the route of the highway, the Chinese firm gets to keep the tolls charged to everyone who wants to take this short-cut to the north coast.

The Chinese firm is also asking to be given the Roaring River property that once belonged to Cunningham-Graham in order to build resorts for Chinese tourists. This is not going down well with many Jamaicans, who worry that the Chinese are being given a precious natural water and land resource. Not only that, but the family of Jamaica’s most famous political hero, Marcus Garvey, were once enslaved at Roaring River and to have such a culturally rich property owned by a foreign power is regarded by many as beyond the pale.

When I trudged up the hill towards the great house at Roaring River plantation, the security guard and his dog were bemused to see a tourist come to this out-of-the-way and rarely visited property. His job is to ensure no-one comes to loot from the massive colonial-style house, but it was quickly apparent that there was little left to steal apart from the wooden frame that was gradually rotting away.

When I told the guard I was researching a previous owner he was more than happy to show me round, and was agog that some guy from Scotland once owned a massively profitable sugar plantation here. I showed him a copy of the Reaburn portrait and I asked if I could take a photograph of him holding the painting.

We both enjoyed speculating about what the future holds for Roaring River. Will it pit the Jamaican and Chinese governments against local people, and even Obama?

Certainly its history already echoes around the world. When Cunningham-Graham returned to Scotland he became a radical politician, a slave-owning supporter of the French Revolution. At the same time he was busy buying or inheriting huge swathes of land around the Clyde and Loch Lomond. I took my camera to his two largest properties, Gartmore and Finlaystone, which are both in decent shape these days though ownership has passed on.

At Gartmore, European tourists were roaming around the huge gardens which incongruously included a massive climbing frame that resembles a set of gallows.

At Finlaystone, which has commanding views over the Clyde to Alexandria and is now owned by the Clan MacMillan family, the setting reminds you that life for a retired planter from Jamaica wasn’t half bad. While roaming around the gardens, a map pointed me to an area of shrubs in early summer bloom – it was called Slaves’ Paradise.

At this point it is worth remembering that when many of these Scottish planters were voyaging to the Caribbean, post-Culloden Scotland was largely in a state of optimism about the economic future for the country and its go-getting young men.

The economic and psychological wounds caused by the dismal failure of Scotland’s own colonial ambitions in the Darien Scheme were by now healing, the failed Jacobite rebellion finally made the British colonies open to Scots with an entrepreneurial spirit and the Scottish Enlightenment was producing figures who argued that mercantile self-interest and agricultural “improvement” would be to the benefit of all mankind.

This age of optimism and entrepreneurial zeal brought forth many young men who, upon setting foot on Jamaican soil, would find little moral conflict in growing fields of sugar cane with African slaves.

Even the great David Hume offered seemingly un-enlightened views at the time on Africans – casting doubt on their intelligence and ability to innovate. Such views were unremarkable, and so enslaving whole populations of men, women and children and treating them abominably might not have been too much of a moral stretch for some of these transient migrants.

They were merely making a trip that would be as short as was consistent with making a ton of money, and then getting home to bonny Scotland and living like a laird. It is this “What Happens in Jamaica, stays in Jamaica” attitude that is partly responsible for our collective amnesia regarding our country’s role in the whole callous business. Even Robert Burns, author of A Slave’s Lament and supporter of Cuningham-Graham, had his ticket booked for a voyage to Jamaica, which would have seen him become a book-keeper on a plantation, or worse.

If we are to be a nation at ease with itself we need to be honest about who we are and where we’ve been: the good and the bad. There’s no point denying our role in slavery and indeed shouldn’t we be in dialogue with the Caribbean nations to ask how we can make amends? Our economy benefited hugely from this colonial episode and although many Scots were pioneers in the campaign for emancipation we also had huge vested interests and politicians who ensured slavery continued for much longer than it should have done. Jamaica has not forgotten slavery – far from it – but it has reckoned with it, and this is something Scotland needs to do.

A Sweet Forgetting is being exhibited as part of Document Scotland’s The Ties That Bind photography exhibition which runs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh from September 26, 2015, until April 26, 2016