Castlerigg, Long Meg and Her Daughters
by Lisa Agnew
Fantastically positioned amidst the Cumbrian Mountains is the Castlerigg Stone Circle, one of the oldest and best examples of its type in Britain. It is thought to date from around 3200BC, and its builders chose a field with outstanding views, known locally as Chestnut Hill, in which to erect their site. To the north the heights of Skiddaw and Blencathara can be clearly seen, to the south lie High Rigg and Helvellyn, whilst west are the Derwent Fells and east, through a gap in the surrounding hills, one can glimpse the further Northern Pennines.
The 38 stones are glacial erratics, 32 of which still stand, while a further ten form a rectangular enclosure inside the ring. This feature is entirely unique to this site, and archaeologists have no idea of what its original function might have been. The tallest stone in the circle stands close to the stone rectangle at the south-east, and is approximately 8 feet tall and estimated to weigh 16 tons. It is set radially to the circle circumference and is aligned to the Samhain sunrise. The circle has a wide entrance at the north flanked by two portal stones, both substantial blocks about 3.5 feet high.
Examination of the site has revealed the remains of 2 to 3 round cairns within the northern half of the circle. About 9 feet in diameter, they are very low features today and exceedingly hard to make out. The cairns probably represent reuse of the site by later people -- an incorporation of the circle into their funerary practices. An outlier stone stands 300 ft to the southwest, by the field wall, and had been used for many years as a stile before being set upright in 1913, when Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, co-founder of the National Trust, and others bought the site. The stone bears many plough marks on one face and was probably cleared to the field edge when the field was under cultivation. Its relationship to the circle is not known.
The stones at Castlerigg are known locally as the Druid's Circle, a common moniker attached to ancient monuments, or The Carles (husbandmen), although what the Carles did to be turned into stone is not known. The term 'circle' is not strictly accurate in Castlerigg's case, as it is slightly flattened on the northeast face of its approximately 100-foot diameter. The stones are arranged with an entrance on the east side, which suggests that the sun shone through the structure at sunrise. Largely because of this alignment, archaeologists are at odds about the original use of the site. There is evidence to suggest one or more round barrows or cairns once stood within the main circle and, on a more mysterious note, the area has been the focus of light phenomena over the years, white lights having been seen moving above the stones.
Long Meg and Her Daughters
Long Meg and her Daughters (also called Maughanby Circle) near Penrith is the third largest British stone circle after Stonehenge and Castlerigg. Like its Cumbrian neighbor, it has legendary associations with the alleged petrification of sinners, who are turned to stone for various misdemeanours such as playing games on a Sunday or perhaps for being under suspicion of involvement in the Dark Arts. The unfortunate Meg and her Daughters were petrified for using an illicit love potion or, according to some, merely turned to stone by a bad-tempered witch because she felt like it!
Long Meg has also attracted the commonly held notion that stones of ancient circles were uncountable. Celia Fiennes (1662-1741), a woman who journeyed throughout England on horseback accompanied by her maid, wrote in her journal of a visit to Long Meg in 1698 -- 'they affirm they cannot be counted twice alike as is the story of Stonidge (Stonehenge)'. If one did manage to count the same number twice, doom would ultimately follow. It was also courting disaster to interfere with the stones. In the 19th century, it was said that if one broke a piece off Long Meg she would bleed, and that when some destructive wag attempted to blast the circle away with dynamite, such a tempest arose that his retainers fled in terror. This circle also has a clear astronomical alignment -- the midwinter sun would set over the outlier (the Long Meg stone) when viewed from the centre of the circle. Traces of a henge remain within the site, and the Long Meg stone has some cup-and-ring marks upon its surface.
The Castlerigg site is on National Trust land, although maintained by English Heritage, and is an easy 1.5-mile amble east of the village of Keswick which is, in turn, close to Derwent Water, Thirlmere and Bassenthwaite Lake. Close to the site is Langdale Valley and the 2000 ft Pike of Stickle, where prehistoric people once climbed to excavate high-grade stone from which to hew their axes.
Keswick can be reached taking the A66 west out of Penrith which is, in turn, reached via the M6 motorway. Penrith also has a train station, although Keswick has not. Keswick has many places to stay, ranging from B&Bs (bed and breakfast) to larger hotels and other establishments. Long Meg and her Daughters is .5 mile north of Little Salkeld, near Penrith, under the care and protection of English Heritage.
- The Fairy Hills of Cumbria, by Dr. Gareth Evans
- The Stone Circles of Cumbria, by Gareth Evans
- Ancient Tracks
- Cumbria: Circles and Cairns
- Stone Pages
- A great site for everything to do with stones, prehistory and archaeology; they also have an excellent weekly newsletter on archaeological discoveries.
Lisa Agnew is a freelance writer of articles and speculative fiction. She is based in Auckland, New Zealand. English by birth, she harbours a life-long fascination with the history and folklore of her native land. Her web site may be found at http://www.writingrealm.com.
Article © 2005 Lisa Agnew
Photo © Britainonview.com