WHEN I was young I made several attempts to keep a diary. I would diligently keep a record of each day’s main events but I don’t think I ever managed to keep it up for more than a couple of weeks. I suppose I just wasn’t disciplined enough, but I also honestly didn’t seem to have the time.

As a consequence, there are thousands of days of my life which are utter blanks – years and years of life lived, yet forgotten. And it’s not just what I did years ago, because ask me what I did last week and I will struggle to remember the details of the day, unless it was something out of the ordinary or a significant event.

History is a bit like this: we have narratives of the past but the vast majority of lived experience remains unrecorded. The truth is we have only tiny fragments of what went on in the past, most of it unrecorded and unremembered. History is full of intrigue and mystery rather than certainty.

So when I came across the story of the mysterious gold ring found at Tantallon Castle in 1852 it made me want to go and see it, to stare at a piece of someone’s personal history which hints at a story we will never know.

The ring was found by a surveyor who was working for the Ordinance Survey. There seems to be no account of its discovery by the surveyor himself, but the ring was bought a year later and given to the museum of antiquities of Scotland.

It seems to be of 15th or 16th-century origin and is a woman’s ring. It has two figures on it, male and female. There are forget-me-nots engraved on it and, most intriguingly, there are the initials ‘I. R.’, which is old style for J.R., almost certainly meaning James Rex.

If so, which James does it refer to? Well, an account in a report of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland makes the suggestion that the ring is of foreign origin and links it to James IV. The suggested story of how the ring may have come into the possession of James IV provides a chink of light into the goings on behind royal doors.

James IV was a notorious philanderer. Well, to be honest he was not unusual in this respect. But his eye for the ladies was cast far and wide and had no boundaries. It is said that the beautiful and young Queen of France in 1513 sent James IV “a ring from her own finger”. In addition we are told she had called herself his “mistress and lady love”.

The goings on behind royal doors can only be left to the imagination. Kings had numerous mistresses, as marriage was seen as a political contract rather than a commitment of love. But this was rather risky behaviour for a woman: a queen blatantly flirting with another man, albeit a king!

Of course, men did this all the time but for a woman it wasn’t acceptable. But there was likely more diplomacy in the flirting than any genuine romantic intention. We are also told that the young queen, after sending the ring as a token of her affection for him, requested James to march three miles upon English soil in her honour. And so, the story goes “James thought he could not in honour dispense with her request”.

How so very romantic! Desiring not flowers or a night of passion, but that he invade another country! Clearly, the beauty of the French queen was being used to entice James into supporting France against England. Did this tactic really work? Was James so enchanted by this young woman that later that year he led the manhood of the Scottish nation to its slaughter on Flodden Field?

I would hope that there may have been better reasons to commit the country to such a disastrous war, but we know despite pleadings from his own wife, as well as many others, James IV was nonetheless determined to honour his commitment to France.

War is most often a senseless waste of life. Sometimes it is necessary but more often it is about politics, power and status. And the story attached to the ring found at Tantallon raises the suggestion that Scotland’s most disastrous military defeat, in which the king himself was also killed, was in part caused by James IV’s desire to appear gallant and courageous to a young queen he no doubt hoped to visit if he had been successful.

So how did the ring end up in Tantallon Castle? Perhaps the ring has more than one tale to tell. James IV’s young son grew up a pawn of powerful nobles. His mother soon remarried to Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. Tantallon was part of his extensive estate. But the marriage was to prove a disaster and the tale of Margaret’s fall-out and struggle against her husband reveals the strength of this woman.

Tantallon was one of the first places James V headed for after gaining his freedom in 1528. The 16-year-old king was determined on revenge against the Angus for his role in keeping him captive. The siege was another legendary tale and eventually Angus fled south.

And so Tantallon became a royal fortress, to remain so until James V’s death in 1542. Much of the reinforced wall structure dates from this time.

But it was not only wall fortifications that James installed at Tantallon. There is information that he had a mistress there as well; one in which he favoured. I am not aware she is named, but James was his father’s son and had many mistresses, by whom he had numerous children. Perhaps the best known is James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, who became Regent of Scotland after the deposition of his half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots.

James visited Tantallon shortly before his death in 1542 to spend time with his mistress there, before heading to Falkland Palace and his deathbed. So he chose to visit his mistress rather than be at the birth of his daughter, Mary. But such were the times, and such was the character of the king.

Had the golden ring been passed to James? And if so, had he perhaps given it to his Tantallon mistress? Is that why it was found there? And who was this woman? Does anybody know?

Och, I wish she had kept a diary!

The ring is with the National Museum of Scotland but who it belonged to remains a mystery.