Overtoun Bridge is a beautiful stone bridge near the village of Milton in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Peaceful and covered in ivy, the bridge looks like something off a postcard or tourist brochure:
But the bridge holds a dark secret. For you see, since the late 1950s or early 1960s, at least 600 have committed suicide by throwing themselves off the bridge. And although the fall kills most, many of those who survive the fall climb back up the bridge and jump again, sometimes immediately, other times several days later. It happens so often that the locals even have a nickname for them: “second timers”. On average, around one dies every month from jumping off the bridge. And while this would certainly be tragic if I were talking about humans, it’s also downright bizarre because I’m talking about dogs.
Yes, over 600 dogs have killed themselves by jumping off the Overtoun Bridge. And the obvious mystery is… why? All of the suicides seem to happen at the same spot, between the final two parapets on the same side of the bridge. Almost all the suicides happen on bright, sunny days. Further clouding the mystery is that, as far as anyone can tell, only long-nosed breeds like labradors, collies and retrievers have jumped; beagles and chihuahuas seem immune to the bridge’s siren song.
One theory dates back to ancient times, when Overtoun was known as “the thin place” in Celtic mythology, a place where heaven and earth where very close together. It’s long thought that dogs could be sensitive to ghosts (or electromagnetic energy, or whatever you consider “ghosts” to be). Certainly many ghost stories – whether wholly fictional or reported as real – involve dogs sensing things that humans cannot. And, in 1994, a local maniac named Kevin Moy threw his baby off the bridge, thinking he was the Antichrist; he later attempted to kill himself by the same means.
Of course, the “ghost” theory isn’t very scientific. Slightly more plausible is the theory that dogs somehow sense the feelings of their owners. Several studies have shown a sort of “psychic link” between dogs and their owners, and most of us have known someone who had a dog who would go to the front door a few minutes before the owner arrived home, even at non-routine hours. Is it possible that dogs can become “depressed” as a result of their owners being depressed? The short answer is: who knows? The methodology of many of the “psychic dog” studies have been called into question, and in the case of Overtoun, most owners have not been found to be clinically depressed… even though the village frequently ranks at or near the top of “worst places to live in Britain” surveys.
The most logical theory would seem to indicate something with either sight, sound or scent at the bridge. Well, not so much for the first two: No one can seem to find anything visually out of the ordinary on the bridge, especially at “dog height”. And although many wondered if a nearby military base was emitting some strange sound that only dogs could hear, an exhaustive study by an acoustics company from Glasgow and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) found nothing acoustically out of the ordinary.
So that leaves scent, and here we might be on to something. RSPB researcher David Sexton planted several traps under the bridge and found mice and mink living there, and many squirrel nests nearby. He isolated the three animals’ scents and placed samples of each in a large field. He then unleashed ten dogs of the same breeds that routinely jump from the bridge. Only two dogs showed no interest in any of the scents… while seven of the dogs immediately went for the scent of the mink. In fact, it seemed that they were driven crazy by it.
So it may be that the smell of mink is irresistible to dogs, and the dogs – not knowing about the 50 foot drop from the bridge – simply go wild and jump when they get a sniff of the scent. This would also explain why the “suicides” only seem to happen to clear days, when the mink scent is undiluted by rain. It also lines up nicely with the timeline for mink populations in Scotland. The animals were only released into the wild in Scotland in the 1920s, and only began breeding in large numbers in the 1950s.
But there’s still the matter of why some dogs, once they’re on the ground after their jump, often go back up the bridge and jump again instead of chasing the mink. Or why the dogs only seem to jump from one specific point of the bridge and not others. Or why dogs go crazy for mink only here, when there are an estimated 26,000 mink all over Scotland?
We just don’t know, and that’s why, despite having a really good guess as to what’s going on, Overtoun Bridge is still a mystery.