The Dancer's Tale

To the east of Penrith in Cumbria there is a stone circle thought to be Neolithic in origin which is named ‘Long Meg And Her Daughters.’ William Wordsworth was noted to have commented that these stones were only second to Stonehenge. The legend goes that the stones, only twenty-seven of which remain standing to this day, were once a coven of witches. As punishment for dancing on the holy day of Sunday, a magician turned them to stone and made it impossible for them to be counted. If anyone is able to count them twice and come up with the same number on both counts then the curse will be lifted and the coven will return to its corporal form.

When we visited Cumbria this summer I just had to go and see Long Meg and her daughters for myself. This is an absolutely huge stone circle around 350 feet in diameter and there is an access road running through it. You can park a couple of hundred metres away and walk to the stones. There you may find bullocks, peacefully grazing amongst them. Surrounded by fields and farmland, as is the case with much of Cumbria National Parking, this is a working landscape.

Many stone circles in the UK have the motif of dancing women attached to them. These women supposedly gathered on the Sabbath to dance and revel on this holy day. At some point during the story the women are turned to stone for their misdemeanour and branded witches as a warning to all.

It’s likely that this motif originated in the 16th and 17th century, as the puritans gained a hold on the Christian church, and forbade any kind of work, dance or celebration on a Sunday, other than that which involved worship in church. However, many of these stone circles are over 4000 years old and so their true meaning and symbolism will forever remain a mystery to us, which is perhaps why they retain such appeal, regardless of your spiritual leanings.

So what's the real story behind Long Meg? Long Meg is thought to have been Meg of Meldon also known as Margaret Fenwick, a 17th century witch. Her reputation as a witch may also have been linked to her business as a moneylender and her opportune forecloser on loans to two large estates, which brought her much wealth. Her prosperity was considered suspicious and her seizure of the properties not at all popular with the landed gentry of the time. I’ll let you decide whether or not Meg was a witch or simply a shrewd businesswoman but she is now thought to haunt the surrounding area as well as being linked to the standing stones at Penrith.

Further west of Penrith lies Castlerigg. Castlerigg is a much smaller stone circle but it is extremely popular with tourists.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

This circle is thought to be older than Stonehenge and, like Long Meg and her Daughter's, also has the folklore motif of 'countless stones' associated with it. In this case the legend tells that if you manage to count the same number of standing stones twice you have achieved the impossible and who knows what will occur next.

Castlerigg with Blencathra in the far distance

From the photos you can see why the stones are so popular with tourists. A neat little set surrounded by the fells and mountains of Cumbria. When facing south you can see the fells of High Rigg and Clough Head and to the north are the mountains of Skiddaw and Blencathra. Skiddaw is the 6th highest mountain in England and a magnificent backdrop for this little circle.

When I was younger I climbed many a mountain, Hellvelyn and Scafell pike being my favourite memories and these are the third highest and the highest points in England respectively. Whilst I have not climbed one of these mountains for a long time, in my opinion, there really is not a better setting for a stone circle.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

As I have a particular interest in how these circles connect with the sun, if you stand next to the tallest stone, which is known as Long Meg, and face towards the circle, you will be facing north-east which is roughly where the sun rises in the summer.

In the case of Castlerigg the largest stone in the circle is in a similar place. If you look at the stone you are facing south east, where the sun would rise in the winter.

There are many stories associated with these stone circles and sites such as English Heritage and The National Trust are the best place to start if you are interested in exploring some of these ancient monuments. I will be talking more about stone circles in my book 'Stories Of The Sun', which is slated for 2023/2024 and I will keep you updated with the progress.

Do you have a favourite stone circle? Let me know in the comment below. I'd love to hear from you.

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