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The Maeshowe Dragon

Picture: Sigurd TowrieThe motif now known as the Maeshowe Dragon is one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of Orkney around today.

Thought to have been carved in the 12th century, by one of the Norsemen who broke into Maeshowe - or Orkahaugr, as it was known to them - the dragon was cut into the stone wall at the same time as the mound-breakers inscribed the runes that cover the interior of the prehistoric cairn.

Maes Howe DragonBut although the carving is generally referred to as "the dragon", it is open to debate whether this is actually what it depicts.

Over the years there have been many suggestions. The beast has been identified as a lion, a wolf (particularly Fenrir from Norse mythology) and even a hare being attacked by a sea-eagle.

However, the fact that the carving was made by Norse crusaders would suggest that the most commonly held belief might be the correct one — that it is a Christian motif in which the dragon represents paganism being slain by the sword of Christian belief.

This is certainly what it appears to represent, some have claimed that the "sword" is actually an extension of the creature's tail.

So it remains open to debate.

But, whatever the carving was meant to represent, there is no doubt that today, over 800 years after it was first carved in Maeshowe, the "dragon" has become a potent a symbol of our history and heritage.