Long Meg and Her Daughters
A weight of awe, not easy to be bourne,
Fell suddenly upon my spirit – cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past
When first I saw that family forlorn..
These are the words which William Wordsworth – the poet of the lakes – used to describe the Long Meg and Her Daughters, one of the largest stone circles in the British Isles. The circle has been stirring imaginations for centuries and is steeped in folklore and legend.
Over time its grandeur has been much depleted, many of the stones are buried or have fallen, and others have disappeared completely. Written records from the early 17th century suggest that there were as many as 77 megaliths at that time. Traces of banking around the circle also suggest the site may have originally been a henge.
The circle is actually oval in shape, 300 feet (92 metres) in diameter at its narrowest point, consisting of bulky boulders of grey granite some of them weighing as much as thirty tonnes. Two of the biggest stones stand opposite each other to the east and west, and two huge stones mark a southwest entrance.
Long Meg is the most famous stone in the circle. The focal point of the site she stands outside the circle positioned towards the southwest, where (when standing in the centre of the circle) the midwinter sun would have set below Neolithic skies. Long Meg is constructed of red sandstone, quarried from the banks of the River Eden nearly two miles away. There must have been a good reason – perhaps purely religious – for this extra effort, but we may never know the intricacies of ancient belief.
The northwest face of the megalith is decorated with several enigmatic designs: a spiral, a cup and ring mark and some concentric circles, which are half complete. There may have been many more markings on the stone as a photo from ‘Archaic Sculpturing’ by Sir James Simpson, 1867, shows the markings much more clearly. If nearly a hundred and fifty yearsof weathering has denuded the markings noticeably, who knows what has disappeared in four thousand.
Written records (John Aubrey 1725) suggest that two cairns stood within the circle, these would have been later additions, showing a continuation of use. No trace of these cairns now remains.
Folklore and Legend
The stones are associated with many legends, and have been the source of superstition for centuries, in fact the stones are associated with three common stone circle legends: petrification, uncountable stones and the association with severe weather.
Petrification: Legend tells that the stones were originally a coven of witches, turned to stone by the Scottish wizard Michael Scott. This legend is common throughout Britain with variation, stone circles have been petrified sinners, wedding parties and giants.
Uncountable stones: The stone circle is said to be uncountable, if anybody can count the same number twice then Michael Scott’s spell will be broken and the witches released from their granite prisons.
Severe Weather: Severe storms are said to be the result of trying to move the stones, a supernatural protection for those who would destroy the circle. One story suggests a local squire, Colonel Lacy, was planning to blow the stones to smithereens for some whim in the late 1700s (perhaps to find the hidden treasure that was long believed to be buried under such stones). Before his men could light the powder a fearful storm suddenly started to rage and the attempt was abandoned.
Long Meg herself has been a fertile source of legend, said to take its name from a local witch, Meg of Meldon, who was alive in the early 17th century. Another theory suggests that the stone was named after another 17th century legend about Long Meg of Westminister, a giantess who was traditionally buried under a large blue gravestone at Westminster Abbey. The stone actually marks the burial place of monks who died during the Black Death. Another snippet of folklore tells how the standing stone will bleed if it is damaged.
Even today the stones have the power to attract worship, many of the trees surrounding the site have been used as the depositories of offerings. On our visit many objects had been left dangling from the trees wrapped in cloth, their contents unknown, but one would hope not too sinister.
Directions: Not an easy circle to find but well worth the search. Come off the A686 at Langwathby go through little Salked, carry up the road for about a quarter of a mile where you will find a track that leads to the stones.