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Meg 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.
Meg & 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.”
‘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…”
You 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.
Of 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.
The 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?