MJ STEEL COLLINS asks why is the Overtoun Bridge in Dumbarton in Scotland a magnet for canine suicides?
The Overtoun Bridge in Dumbarton, West Dunbartonshire, has acquired a deadly reputation.
Anyone taking their dog for a walk there does so at their dog’s peril.
Ever since the 1950s, anything from 50 to 600 dogs have met their end by jumping from the bridge, 60 feet onto the rocks below. Only a few have survived, leaving themselves and their owners shaken.
The bridge spans Overtoun Burn in the approach to Overtoun House. It was built in 1895 by Lord Overtoun. Why dogs leap to their death from the bridge is a conundrum that has led to theories from a wide range of experts, including animal behaviourists and psychics. It tends to be long nosed dogs, such as collies, retrievers and other similar working dogs that jump. And always from the last two parapets on the right hand side of the bridge, always on sunny days.
The dogs that have actually survived seem to have been incredibly lucky. One was a retriever named Hendrix, who landed on a soft patch below the bridge. Hendrix was left shocked by what happened, his hair falling out as his owner carried the traumatised dog back to the path after he fell. In 2006, Hendrix was still going, having reached the ripe old age of 19.
Another dog surviving the death jump was a three-year-old springer Sspaniel named Cassie in 2014. Her owner, Alison Treverrow, who is local to the area, had been told Overtoun was a beautiful place, but hadn’t heard of its reputation. Cassie immediately made for the bridge after being taken out the car and jumped. She spent six days in an animal hospital. Ms Treverrow pleaded with the local council, West Dumbartonshire to place signs up warning dog owners about the bridge’s history. Even MSP Jackie Bailie got involved. Several local dog owners give the bridge a wide berth.
Theories abound as to why Overtoun Bridge is so deadly to canines. Overtoun is seen by some as a ‘thin place’ – a place in Celtic folklore where the veils between this world and the next are, well, thin, allowing for the passage of spirits and other supernatural entities into our world. Dogs are well known to be just that bit more sensitive to the supernatural than humans. It’s thought something otherworldly may have been luring the dogs to their doom. However, a psychic has said that Overtoun is a serene place, and there would be no reason for spirits to lure pooches over the edge of the bridge.
A further explanation has been sought in animal psychology. Working dogs, of the type most likely to jump from the bridge, are now more likely to be used as companions to their human owners. Dumbarton has been noted for being quite a depressing place to live, thanks to it being an area in decline. Its suicide rate has been high. Dogs are quite perceptive to how their owners feel, and it was suggested that perhaps the dogs that jumped from Overtoun Bridge were picking up on suicidal feelings from their owners, acting on them. However, the owners whose dogs leapt from the bridge said that they didn’t feel suicidal or depressed at the time.
Locals thought that perhaps the unfortunate dogs were picking up on noises at the bridge, which were out with the frequency of human ears. Controversial nuclear base, Faslane, is not too far from Overtoun Bridge, and it was believed it may have been emitting sounds that drove the dogs into a frenzy. Acoustic experts, including David Sexton from the RSPB investigated, but found that sound levels on the bridge were normal. However, Sexton noticed that wild mink, mice and squirrels lived under the bridge and thought that their scent may have been attracting the dogs.
Wild mink were first introduced to Scotland in the 1920s. By the 1950s, there were large numbers of mink, the same time dogs started jumping from Overtoun Bridge. Mink leave incredibly strong musk scents. Tests were carried out on dogs of the breeds that most commonly leapt from the bridge, using scents from mice, squirrels and minks. The majority of dogs were overwhelmingly drawn to the mink scent. Animal psychologist, Dr David Sands, was another of the experts brought in to investigate the phenomena by the local authorities. In 2006, he took 19 year old Hendrix, at that time the only dog known to have survived jumping, back across the bridge. At the same point he had previously leapt from, Hendrix seemed quite keen to have another go, as something caught his attention. Only he was at that point too old to clamber over the edge.
Sands investigated further by attaching a camera to his own dog and walking it across the bridge. Dogs have a very poor field of vision next to humans, and on Overtoun Bridge, what they can see is further impaired by the parapets on the side of the bridge. Sands concluded that the dogs were strongly driven to investigate the smell of mink, but couldn’t see that there was a huge drop over the side of the parapets when jumping over them in search of the scent. The mink scent would be even stronger on dry, sunny days, which is why these tended to be the days dogs were most likely to jump.
Despite this plausible theory, the jury is still out on what makes dogs jump.