Overtoun Bridge is a category B-listed structure over the Overtoun Burn on the western approach road to Overtoun House,[a]Category B structures are “buildings of regional or more than local importance, or major examples of some particular period, style or building type which may have been altered”. near Dumbarton in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. It was completed in 1895 to a design by the landscape architect H. E. MilnerEnglish civil engineer and landscape architect .
Overtoun Bridge has attracted international media attention because of the number of dogs that have reportedly leapt from it, often to their deaths after landing on the rocks fifty feet (15 m) below.
History and construction
John WhiteScottish chemical manufacturer, supporter of religious causes, philanthropist and Liberal politician , later 1st Baron Overtoun, inherited the Overtoun estate from his father in 1891. He also acquired the neighbouring Garshake estate to the west after he took up residence at Overtoun House the following year. Carriages had been unable to gain access to the Overtoun mansion along the old eastern approach road as the incline was considered to be too steep; work commenced on constructing a new mile-long western driveway in 1893.
The western approach had to cross the Overtoun Burn, and so the civil engineer and landscape architect H. E. Milner, was commissioned to design a bridge, which was completed in June 1895.
Overtoun Bridge comprises three arches. The larger central arch over the Overtoun Burn is flanked by two smaller and lower pedestrian arches on either side. The bridge was built using rough-faced ashlar with polished dressings and keystones. Each of the three arches is corniced on both sides with triangular buttresses corbelled below the deck of the bridge and continuing upwards as eight semi-circular pedestrian refuges. A balustrade at the house end of the bridge is pierced by a staircase leading down to the garden. The parapet coping is moulded, with two domed caps at each end of the bridge.
One of the hemispherical capstones at the eastern end of the bridge bears the inscription “last stone of bridge laid by Lady Overtoun and avenue opened 5 June 1895”, although it was not laid by her until two days later, on the 7th.
According to some locals, dogs have been leaping to their deaths from the bridge since its completion in 1895. The numbers involved have been estimated by paranormal investigator Paul Owens to be between 100 and 600, although there are no official records to substantiate either figure. Brian Dunning, writing in Skeptoid in 2012, found only six cases since 1995, which tallies with the number seen at the local Glenbrae Veterinary Clinic, where four dogs were treated after being injured in falls from the bridge between 1999 and when Dunning was writing in 2012.
In 2005 local journalist Willie Cochrane published a series of articles about dogs leaping to their deaths from Overtoun Bridge. The story was soon picked up by the national press, and lazy journalism ensured that the myth of the suicide bridge was born.
Insofar as any explanations are necessary to account for what may not be an unusually large number of dogs leaping from the bridge, those that have been offered fall into one of three categories: psychological, supernatural, or natural.
The dogs may be committing suicide, an idea that is dismissed by animal behaviourists such as David Sands. His view is that dogs do not premeditate their own deaths, and therefore cannot commit what we would call suicide. An elaboration of the suicide theory is that dogs are psychically linked to their owners and feel what they do, so if an owner is feeling suicidal then their dog will too.
One argument against the suicide theory is that because the solid parapets of the bridge are more than three feet (1 m) high, above the line of sight of even large dogs, the animals have no visual clues to tell them that they are on a bridge, let alone the 50-foot (15 m) drop on the other side of the parapet.
According to Paul Owens “there is a common census among paranormal mystery hunters that some ethereal power is being experienced at the bridge site itself”. It has been suggested that the bridge is a doorway into another world, a “thin place” that offers supernatural entities such as ghosts, fairies or evil spirits the opportunity to enter our world. An encounter with such an entity may so frighten a dog that it jumps from the bridge in a desperate attempt to escape. One candidate for such a supernatural presence is the White Lady of Overtoun, which has been identified with Lady Overtoun, who died in 1931.
Distracted by sounds or smells that may be beyond the range of our own senses dogs may jump up onto the wall to investigate, lose their footing, and plunge to the bottom of the valley below. Among the sounds that have been implicated are the low frequency transmissions used to communicate with the nearby Royal Navy submarine fleet, dripping or cascading water from underneath the bridge, the low hum and crackling of coronal discharge produced by nearby power lines, and infrasound generated by wind sweeping down the valley and hitting the bridge. None of these ideas, however, can explain all of the reported cases.
Following an investigation by David Sands, the most commonly accepted explanation is that dogs are jumping because they are being attracted by the smell of mink. Not all local residents agree however, on the basis that they have never seen a mink around Overtoun Bridge themselves. David Sexton, a widlife expert from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, favours the view that it is the scent of grey squirrels that attracts the dogs. It is perhaps just as likely that some combination of these factors may explain why the dogs who are known to have jumped from the bridge actually did so.
Humans can never really know what motivates another species to do anything, or what an animal may be thinking or feeling, we can only speculate. What seems certain is that only the dogs themselves know whether there is any mystery to be explained at Overtoun Bridge.