Long Meg and her daughters form the sixth largest stone circle in Britain, Ireland and Britanny, 25 times larger than the average stone circle (Burl 1994, 1). It is part of a European megalithic tradition of building large stone monuments that starts in the Neolithic and continues into the earlier Bronze Age. There are several stone circles in Cumbria apart from Long Meg, including Castlerigg, Little Meg, and Swinside. Not many of these stone circles have had a history of excavation, and so it is difficult to pinpoint with much greater accuracy exactly when in the Neolithic or Bronze Age they were constructed and whether they have been rearranged at any point. The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley suggested that Long Meg had been extensively modified within his lifetime, and stones were also moved later in the nineteenth century, so it is possible that the stones are not in their exact original positions (Burl 1994, 4).Despite this, for many years it has been noted that Long Meg aligns with the midwinter sunset. The two more northerly ‘portal’ stones of the southern entrance align exactly on Long Meg and the midwinter sunset. The spiral motifs carved on Long Meg are thought to reflect the spiral shadow that the sun makes as it passes through the midwinter day (Burl 1994, 8). It is likely that there were two burial cairns in the centre of the circle, possibly built in the Bronze Age and later than the stone circle itself, that were removed by the landowners over the centuries. There are other stone circles known in Cumbria with stone cairns inside, at Gunnerkeld and Burnmoor, for instance (Burl 1994, 4-5; Clare 1975, 6, 10).
Although not visible on the ground, there was an enclosure to the north of the stone circle and a cursus monument (a long processional route flanked by parallel banks and ditches) to the west that leads to (or from) the River Eden. These were found in the 1980s through aerial photography. The enclosure bank and ditch may have been round a settlement that was lived in at the same time as the stone circle was built (Burl 1994, 6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552). People from the settlement and surrounding areas may have processed along the cursus to from the River Eden to Long Meg and her Daughters at midwinter to “supplicate for the return of summer, light and warmth” (Burl 1994, 10).
Wordsworth was certainly inspired by the stones, writing in his 1822 poem, The monument commonly called Long Meg:
A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;
If you are a teacher in Cumbria, you have your own stone circle to teach about and even visit, and don’t have to focus on Stonehenge. There are plenty of other stone circles, rows, single stones or dolmens around the country, too, like the monolith in Rudston churchyard in the East Riding of Yorkshire, stone rows on Dartmoor, and Kit’s Coty in Kent.
References and further information
Burl, A. 2005. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Burl, H.A.W. 1994. The stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 94, 1-11.
Clare, T. 1975. Some Cumbrian stone circles in perspective. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 75, 1-16.
Clare, T. 2007. Prehistoric monuments of the Lake District. Stroud: Tempus.
Soffe, G. & Clare, T. 1988. New evidence of ritual monuments at Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria. Antiquity Volume 62 Issue 236, 552-557.