IN AN era when historic buildings are bulldozed to make way for supermarkets and luxury flats, the zig-zag brickwork of the old sugar sheds in Greenock stands proud against the turbulent grey skyline hanging over the Firth of Clyde.

The buildings at James Watt Dock are all that remain of the massive industry that dated back to the mid-1800s and at one time linked the lush Caribbean islands with the dreich coast of the West of Scotland, bringing jobs and boosting the coffers of enterprising merchants.

All that is gone now, and the only link Greenock has with its past is through the absent voices of those who worked in the sugar trade.

From the youngest of children who ran barefoot and stirred the vats of molten sugar to the slaves who toiled in the fields of the Caribbean and the men who lined their pockets with the profits, they are all being remembered in a unique project by a group of eight artists and musicians, led by local artist Alec Galloway under the banner Absent Voices.

Collaborations that will involve local people of all ages, including those who worked in the sugar sheds, are ongoing between now and November next year, culminating in an exhibition at the McLean Museum and Art Gallery, in Greenock, and an event in the empty, echoing sugar sheds that hopes to bring them back to life.

Alongside Galloway, participating artists include singer-songwriter Kevin McDermott, award-winning filmmaker and photographer Alastair Cook, artist Rod Miller, singer-songwriter Yvonne Lyon, artist Anne McKay and musicians and artists Ryan King and Alan Carlisle.

"I grew up on the hill over- looking the docks and my family were all sugar people; some worked here in the sugar sheds and others in local refineries," explains Galloway, who was shortlisted for the prestigious Aspect Prize for painting and is a leading light in architectural glass making.

"One of my driving forces was because a lot of projects in Inverclyde tend to focus on the shipbuilding history.

"Even the public art that exists is dedicated to shipbuilding and there's practically nothing to do with sugar apart from a few street names.

"If you go around the town you'll find Tobago Street and Jamaica Street and Virginia Street. I've always felt the sugar history has been under-represented, especially creatively."

Prince Charles is known to be a supporter of retaining the sugar sheds and visited the buildings in 2002 to back the campaign to save the them from demolition.

Now the £100,000 arts project Absent Voices, supported by EuroMillions winners Christine and Colin Weir from nearby Largs, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Inverclyde Council and Riverside Inverclyde, firmly focuses on the buildings.

The Absent Voices artists are hoping that the project will live on in the regenerated sugar sheds in the form of a Wee Tate.

London has two Tate galleries and Liverpool has one. Despite its rich history steeped in bubbling vats of sugar, Greenock has nothing to mark its link between the world of art and the industry that made fortunes for industrialist Henry Tate.

At one time 400 ships plied their trade between the islands of the West Indies, across the Atlantic to Greenock and back again.

Plantations built on the slave trade produced the sugar shipped to Scotland for refining, but conditions in the factories here were often little better than those experienced thousands of miles away.

Mountains of refined sugar piled up in warehouses, or sugar sheds, along the quayside.

Outside gales howled along the coast, but inside it was hot and humid and workers toiled in the sweet, syrupy smell that seeped into every pore and permeated the entire town.

"The idea for putting this project together was to address that and we're hoping that out of the project we will have enough funding to create a public art piece in the town," he says.

"You've got the Tate in London and the Tate in Liverpool but there's no Tate in Scotland.

"Given that Tate & Lyle were a big part of the local history here, it seems apt that a Tate would be a great idea. This building would be perfect for it.

"As much as we're going to be doing the creative response individually, the end game is to shine a spotlight to developers and say, why can't Scotland have a Tate in the town where the sugar came from?

IF YOU look at the Tate's Turbine Hall in London and think about the scale of that, this building would work.

"You could have a heritage space and a gallery. It could be divided up to house large pieces of work, industrial art, as well as paintings.

"I was in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago doing some research on warehouse buildings.

"When you see the Albert Docks and how they've transformed all the old warehouse buildings into beautiful spaces, it really is inspiring.

"We need people with deep pockets. Hopefully, our Absent Voices project will inspire other people and start to have a ripple effect."