Long Meg in the afternoon

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Long Meg and Her DaughtersMeg was a witch, and an exceptionally tall one.  One day, she was messing about with her daughters, as witches do, trying to get them organised into a nice, neat, circle, when along came a wizard and turned them all to stone.  People are always doing things like that; it seems so unfair.

Long Meg and Her Daughters is the third largest stone circle in England (after Avebury in Wiltshire and Stanton Drew in Somerset).  It is situated north-west of Penrith, in a sloping Cumbrian field, partially bisected by a narrow farm road and often nudged by cattle, close to the village of Little Salkeld.  The circle is in fact an oval, approximately 360 feet (100 metres) by 305 feet (93 metres) and consists of 59 or 69 stones, depending which account you believe. Originally, there were more – at least 77 according to accounts from the 17th century.  Of course, one of the legends associated with Long Meg and Her Daughters is that the stones cannot be counted, but in any event Meg must have been a very busy lady.  She herself stands about 20 feet (6.1 metres) apart from Her Daughters (the circle stones) and is around 12 feet (3.6 metres) high with prehistoric artwork on her circle-facing side.  She is made of local red sandstone, whereas Her Daughters are glacial erratics (not a common condition in women, surely?) and a type of granite, rhyolite.

Long Meg and Her DaughtersMeg & Co have evidently been around for some time, though the antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623) was apparently the first to record the name, from a description sent to him by Appleby schoolmaster Reginald Bainbrigg:

“Besides litle Salkeld, not far from Crawdundailewith [I can’t discover where this was], wher the Romaines have fought some great Battle, ther standes certaine monuments or pyramides of stone, placed ther in equal distance frome an other in modum coronae [like a crown].  They are commonlie called meg with hir daughters.”

Stone circles in Cumbria‘Long Meg’, or even simply ‘Meg’, seems to have been a term applied in days gone by to anyone, or maybe anything, deemed to be large, or tall.  Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable mentions ‘Long Meg of Westminster’, “a noted virago in the reign of Henry VIII” and that the appellation has also been given to the large black marble grave of Gervasius de Blois in Westminster Abbey.  There was a great gun in the Tower [of London], apparently, that was called long Megg.  I hadn’t heard of that – though I knew of Mons Meg at Edinburgh Castle.  Brewer also quotes from the Edinburgh Antiquarian Magazine of September 1769, which mentions a “Peter Branan, aged 104, who was six feet six inches high and commonly called Long Meg of Westminster”.

Legends of stones being victims of petrification are fairly common.  The traveller Celia Fiennes wrote after passing by in 1698:

“A mile from Peroth [Penrith] in a low bottom a moorish place stands Great Mag and her Sisters, the story is that these soliciting her to an unlawful love by an enchantment are turned with her into stone…”

Long Meg and Her DaughtersYou can’t help wondering about that unlawful love, can you?  Some sources suggest Meg and her mates were a 13th century witches’ coven turned to stone by the legendary Scottish philosopher and sorcerer, Michael Scot. ‘Tis said that if you count the stones twice and the numbers are the same, the spell will break.  Or, if you count the right number of stones and put your ear to Meg, you’ll hear her whisper.  What you should definitely not do is chip bits off Meg; if you do, she will bleed.

‘Tis also said that when the local land owner, a Colonel Lacy, wanted to clear the stones for some obscure agricultural purpose in the 18th century, he ordered that the stones be blasted with gunpowder.  But a terrible storm ensued; the labourers saw this as a sign and refused to carry on.

Long Meg, prehistoric sites in CumbriaOf course, Long Meg and her Daughters are far older than all of this stuff.  Experts believe that the stones were placed sometime during the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age, c2400 – 1000 BC and were likely to have been used as a meeting place or for some type of ritual (which covers most bases, I suppose). Reginald Bainbrigg, the 16th century schoolmaster, said that there were two great heaps of smaller stones inside the circle, covering buried bodies.  There is no trace of these now.  Aerial observation has revealed a cursus, or linear earthwork, to the west of the stone circle and a prehistoric enclosure to the north.  There are other prehistoric remains nearby too, including at least two, much smaller, stone circles, or cairns: Little Meg and Glassonby.  Both are said to be in poor condition but have carvings on them.

You can drive to Long Meg and her Daughters, but there’s nowhere really to stop.  The easiest way to pay a visit is to park in Little Salkeld and walk up the Glassonby Road for about ¼ mile, then follow a track to the left between some fields.  It bends right and you’ll come to the road further up – keep going and you’ll stumble into the stones.  They’re impossible to miss, but I challenge you to count them and have a private word with Meg afterwards.

Little SalkeldThe first time I went to see Meg, the adjacent trees had been dressed with little strips of coloured cloth hanging from the branches.  There were none there on my most recent visit. Sometimes you’ll spot offerings left at Long Meg’s feet.  I was intrigued to see an old sign pointing to the “Druids’ Circle” in Little Salkeld, though.  As far as we know, Druids came well after the long ago people who assembled Long Meg and Her Daughters.  I can’t remember when we stopped associating druids with stone circles and other megalithic monuments.   And no apostrophe – so we don’t know whether it was one druid on his own, or a whole team of them.  What’s the collective noun for a group of druids, anyway?  A mistletoe, perhaps?

Long Meg and Her Daughters

Long Meg and Her Daughters

55 thoughts on “Long Meg in the afternoon

  1. April Munday

    What does it say about me that my first thought on reading ‘Long Meg’ was about the canon? It’s amazing how beautiful and intriguing a circle of stones can be. How many of them were destroyed by landowners like Colonel Lacy I wonder.

  2. Alli Templeton

    I think I’m going to have to seek Meg and her sisters out next time I’m down that way. I’d heard of her but haven’t seen her. Wonderful story. That photo of Meg in the foreground with the sun on her is amazing. I know it’s not, but it looks as though it’s a black and white photo with just the stone in colour. Very impressive indeed. Thanks for telling us the story of the stones. 🙂

  3. marmeladegypsy

    Well, as I was just enlarging the map to figure where this was, I found Gretna Green. I’ve heard of Gretna Green forever, so thanks for that — never knew where it was before. What a fascinating stone circle (oval!). There’s a show on our Smithsonian channel lately called Mystic Britain and they’ve gone to some but not this one, I don’t think!

  4. Clare Pooley

    I had heard of Long Meg and her Daughters but had never thought to discover where the stone circle is; thanks for the directions and all the wonderful information on this enormous stone circle. It was good to see that old road sign, as well. There aren’t that many of those left now.

  5. myplaidheart

    I loved learning about this lady and her daughters. When you mentioned that ‘Meg’ was once a commonly applied term, I immediately thought of Mons Meg. Great post and photos!

  6. John @ Stargoose And Hanglands

    More interesting than all the legends that accumulate around these sites, is the question of how they were built. I don’t just mean the problem of moving and erecting big heavy stones with little but human muscle either. Anyone who has tried to organise anything in their local community, even something as simple as a jumble sale, will know how difficult it can be. Now imagine having a meeting and persuading you neighbours to drag huge rocks about the countryside! There must also have been some means of feeding those engaged in the project. It all suggests that there must have been some kind of centralised authority with considerable power to get everyone pulling in the same direction – more power than Boris Johnson anyway!

  7. franklparker

    Loved the story and al the comments. Thanks for another entertaining and informative read well ilustrated with your photogrpahs. Incidentaly, your assertion that “Druids came well after the long ago people who assembled Long Meg and Her Daughters.” is open to challenge. According to the Irish Central website “The earliest evidence of the Druid spiritual tradition is from 25,000 years ago and is found in caves in Europe, such as the Pinhole caves in Derbyshire in England, the Chauvet or Lascaux caves in France, and the Altamira in Spain, which feature paintings of wild animals on their walls.” If Long Meg and her daughters date form around 4,000 years ago the Druids pre-date them!

  8. artandarchitecturemainly

    The stones were once a coven of witches who were turned to stone by a wizard from Scotland named Michael Scot. Your comment pins the first accounts to the early 17th century, as did the story of the local witch, Meg of Meldon, who was alive just then.

    Perfect timing for the witch-obsessed King James VI of Scotland King of Scotland from 1567-1625!

  9. Helen Devries

    A sickle of druids, perhaps?
    I have just asked my husband if he thinks I could be described as a glacial erratic. He has – probably wisely – decided that he ought to go and see to the sheep…In his wheelchair.
    Very much enjoyed the photographs.

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