Myths and legends

Long Meg silhouetted against a stormy sky

An intriguing summary of legends associated with Long Meg is provided by the late Aubrey Burl, for many decades the doyen of stone circle studies, in his splendid book ‘Great Stone Circles’ (1999). This account relies heavily on his work.

For most people reading this page, the word ‘meg’ is probably understood as an abbreviation of ‘megabyte’. However, given that we know from documentary evidence the stone circle of Long Meg and her Daughters was already known by this name by at least as long ago as 1600, this may be considered an unlikely origin of the name. The true origin of the name is lost in the mists of time, but some potentially relevant clues are available.  

The online Oxford English Dictionary notes that the oldest recorded use of the word ‘meg’ is from 1568, and that it can mean ‘a coarse, unsophisticated, or unattractive woman’. This could potentially be relevant, though those of us familiar with Long Meg would certainly never refer to her as unsophisticated or unattractive! The dictionary also notes a character known as ‘Long Meg of Westminster: ‘a woman (perhaps fictional) famous in 16th-cent. London for having supposedly fought, disguised as a man, in the Anglo-French campaigns of 1544.’  But it is hard to see why this should be any way relevant to a site so far away from Westminster.

The dictionary also notes that ‘Meg’ was used in the 16th century, especially in Scotland, when naming large, loud cannons: ‘Deaf Meg’, ‘Foul-mouthed Meg’, ‘Mad Meg’, ‘Mons Meg’, ‘Muckle Meg’ and ‘Roring Megge’, are all recorded, and Burl notes a cannon kept in the Tower of London called ‘Long Megg’. But again, it is unclear what sort of link there could have been between Long Meg and such ordnance.  Burl further notes, though without providing any examples, that ‘it seems that ‘Long Meg’ was a popular medieval catch-phrase applied to any long and slender object’.

In addition to all the above speculation, there is a simple and appealing alternative. The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (Simpson & Roud 2003) notes (though without providing any details) that ‘Long Meg was a proverbial nickname for any tall, thin woman’. So, while not particularly fascinating (and assuming it was in vogue by at least as long ago as the 16th century), this perhaps this offers the most likely derivation of the name.

Whatever the origin of the name, it is clear that by the end of the 16th century the site was generally regarded as a woman (Long Meg herself) and her Daughters. There is a legend that all were witches, turned to stone by a magician, Michael Scott, and that anyone who succeeds in accurately counting the stones will re-animate the entire coven. As noted by Burl, such a story may well have origins in the general hysteria about witchcraft that gripped society during the fifteenth century. An alternative story maintains that anyone counting the number of stones both clockwise and anticlockwise, and reaching the same total both times, will themselves be turned to stone. (Children usually enjoy the task of trying to prove this wrong; none, at least in modern times, have managed to prove it right).

Alternative legends state that the Daughters are all girls turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath, or that Long Meg was petrified for engaging in ‘unlawful love’, her Daughters for helping to solicit such unacceptable behavior. It is also recorded that ‘giants’ bones’ were dug up within the circle. Other stories, with unknown origins, include that treasure is buried beneath Long Meg and that she will bleed if a bit is chipped off her. (Do NOT attempt to dig for this treasure, or to chip any of the stones, as both are strictly against the law!).

Legends of more recent date are also associated with the site. Colonel Lacy, the landowner in the 18th century, ordered some men to blast the stones to facilitate ploughing, but:

 ‘…the slumbering power of Druidism rose in arms against this violation of their sanctuary; and such a storm of thunder and lightning, and such heavy rain and hail ensued, as the Fell-sides never before witnessed. The labourers fled for their lives, vowing never more to meddle with Long Meg.’

Similarly, if less dramatically, attempts to remove some stones in the 19th century resulted in a very poor harvest, so they were replaced. All of the above stories contribute to the mystique of the site, which has clearly intrigued people for a very long time. The main mystery remains, however, why the site should ever have been built in the first place!

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