“You enter the sauna with a different state of mind,” said Estonian film director Anna Hints. “You put away your phones. There is no electricity. You take your clothes off: your physical clothes, but also your emotional clothes. You enter this dark space, and, as you take time there, the physical dirt starts to come to the surface of your body, but also the emotional dirt.”

In Scotland, we have no indigenous sauna culture, as there is in Estonia, though we are on a similar latitude to places that do, and, in Orkney, archeologists have unearthed the remains of what is believed to be a Bronze Age steam room.

Yet sauna in Scotland is having a moment. A new wave of traditional Nordic, almost ‘wild’ sauna-culture is sweeping the country.  In the past few years, mobile or cabin saunas have started to appear on our shorelines or in the wilder spaces of nature – and they have little to do with the 1970s vibe or gym culture.

These are romantic wood-fired saunas that make for a desirable Instagram image: a  horsebox looking out over the sands at Elie in Fife; a cabin on dramatic St Ninian’s Isle beach in Shetland.

But the people who use them are not just going for the stunning views. Often they are there to tap into an older sauna culture.

It’s possible to see what a living, indigenous sauna culture looks like in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a new Oscar-touted documentary from Estonia, in which women lounge, splash, scrub, massage each other with whisks and tell stories about their lives in a traditional smoke sauna.

Its director, Ms Hints is herself part of that sisterhood, and culture, and the film is a masterpiece, shot over seven years, Rembrandt-like in its lighting, and emotionally raw. 

The Herald: Still from the documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna HintsStill from the documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna Hints. Image: Ants Tammik

Women’s bodies loom in and out of the darkness,  shifting hands and limbs, naked breasts and buttocks, flesh wet and sweating. They are, for the most part, faceless as their voices tell intense of child loss, parental abuse, rape, breast cancer, and the common pains and traumas of a woman’s life.

Estonian smoke sauna, the film shows us, is a place of intimacy. The women vigorously chant out their pain. They beat each other with whisks made from twigs plucked from trees outside the cabin.

“I come from that culture,” the director said. “It is a specific culture in southeast Estonia, not just the smoke sauna itself, but this ritual, the chants, and traditions that are still alive. For us smoke sauna is not just a building but a living thing and part of a bigger spirituality very much connected with nature.”

The smoke sauna was also where, in that part of Estonia, babies were born and the dead were washed. “My granny was born there and it was a place where women used to give birth – a timeless space, in a way.”

Ms Hints has a story she tells about when she realised, as a child, the power of sauna. “I was 11-years-old,” she said. “My grandfather had just died and his body was in the house and we went to the smoke sauna before the funeral and it was there that granny confessed that grandfather had betrayed her and lived several years with some other woman.

"She released all these emotions connected to that - frustration, anger - there in a very dark room.  And once we left the smoke sauna I felt that granny had made peace with grandfather and we could bury his body in peace.”

The Herald: Still from Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna HintsStill from Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna Hints/ Image: Ants Tammik

We may not have that tradition here, but pioneering sauna enthusiasts in Scotland are drawing on Nordic practices and creating bespoke saunas where visitors can experience steam and sweat - and in locations that give a sense of connection to the sea, the loch or a forest.

I visited Elie Seaside Sauna in spring this year, on a research trip for my book The Ripple Effect: A Celebration of Britain's Brilliant Swimming Communities. We were there when the sea was at its coldest, and dipped in and out of the chill water, between sessions in the heat, looking out over the sands and the marram grass.

“I don’t view myself as providing a sauna so much as providing joy,” its creator, Judith Dunlop, said. “I’m selling joy. Not everyone comes here thinking earnestly about the health benefits, their cardiovascular system, their endocrine system. They come here to have fun and hang out with their friends.

Ms Dunlop first had the idea for her Elie Seaside Sauna on New Year’s Day 2022, after having had a coffee at a shipping container café on the Fife coast and seeing a social media image posted by a colleague, who on visiting Copenhagen had gone to the shipping container sauna at the harbour.

“I thought I could get a shipping container and I could put it on Elie harbour, I could make it into a sauna. From that moment on I’d been taken by the idea. The idea just came through me and it all happened.”

She sought out the few others in the UK who had already set up, or were developing such saunas, visited Iceland, and went on sauna tours of other Nordic countries.

The Herald: View from Elie Seaside SaunaView from Elie Seaside Sauna. Image: Suzanne Black

“There is all this history of Nordic culture in Scotland that we often forget about,” she said. “The Norsemen came and they integrated. You can see it in Shetland with the Up Helly Aa, but it was also part of that west coast history and psychologically I feel very drawn to that.”

Such saunas, however, are not only appearing on our wilder coastlines. There is also a mobile sauna just off the promenade at Portobello Beach in Edinburgh, so popular its slots are booked out almost as soon as they are opened.

What is so different, I asked the founder of Soul Water Sauna at Portobello, about this experience and one you might find in a gym or spa?

“When someone comes to the sauna,” Kirsty Carver said, “they’re learning something different culturally. They're almost immersed in that. It’s about feeling the difference of putting the water on the rocks and feeling the löyly, which is what we call  the steam, and then moving that around with the bunches of twigs, or whisks.”

It’s also, she said, about the connection to the natural environment - for instance, the North Sea just outside the sauna's door. For others like West Coast Wellness, it may be the waters of Loch Fyne.

The Herald: West Coast Wellness sauna on Loch FyneWest Coast Wellness on Loch Fyne

Ms Carver  has trained with the International Bath Academy, which is based in Lithuania, where, she said, sauna is called pirtis. “It’s a tradition that's about bringing in plants and how you hold space for everyone. It's the ritual of bringing whisks in and salt scrubs and that kind of thing.” 

She described how she first found her love of sauna in Iceland, when she was stuck there, getting an engine repaired whilst on a sailing trip, and was struck not just by the physical experience, but the community built around it.

“But I totally forgot about it,” she said, “until I came back and did a Swim Wild Highland Gathering by the Spey,  and, getting in and out of the sauna, remembered how your body feels when you’ve been for a swim and you’re sitting there and you’re held by the sauna and you’re also held by everybody in the space. You have a conversation with someone next to you and it makes you think about something that you would never have talked about. It's the growing of community.”

She then decided she wanted to bring all that to her own community in Portobello. “I spoke to people who had already pioneered saunas in the UK and the idea grew and I learned about all the health benefits. But how it makes people feel is more important for me. The health benefits are almost an aside. It has taken over my whole life. I am now sauna obsessed.”

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Soul Water Sauna may be one of the most urban wild saunas, but Haar on St Ninian’s beach, a long spit of sand connecting the small isle of St Ninian's to Shetland, is the most remote.

The sauna, which just opened this weekend, was created by Callum Scott and Hannah Mary Goodlad, the couple credited with first having brought mobile sauna to Scotland in 2021.

The original idea came to them when they were at Badstuforening – a social enterprise sauna in the mouth of the Norwegian fjord, in Oslo, where they live.

“There are so many saunas in Norway,” said Callum Scott. “Floating saunas, mobile saunas, cabin saunas and they bring the whole community together. Instead of going to the pub on a Friday night and spending £90 on drinks, you go to the sauna and you’re spending £15 and you have so much more fun. It’s phenomenal the people you meet.”

“For me a lot of it was to do with mental health. I struggle with stress massively. I’m a primary teacher by background and when I was in Scotland I  used to go swimming every day just to clear the mind and reset the body after or before work. I saw a gap in the market and thought we can do this and do it well.” 

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The couple originally  pitched their horsebox sauna at Aberdeen beach, then  Dunkeld and later Braemar. “It was really difficult to get people interested,” he recalled, “but then once we had 100 customers they would keep coming back. ”

"When we were in Aberdeen we set up women’s only evenings so it was a safe space. And that was really important to us because you kind of go to a sauna in a gym and feel like you are being looked at all the time. It’s normally full of men and we wanted to create that space that would be fine for anyone to go along and feel safe.”

What Scottish wild sauna shares with Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, is the intimacy of the conversations had, the stories shared, in the heat of a sauna, even if, in Scotland, we are more likely to be sitting in our bathing costumes than naked and baring all.

“For some people,” said Kirsty Carver, “what is remarkable, particularly post-Covid, is sitting so close to somebody in an intimate space, sharing that vulnerability but also doing something as one.”

Sauna in Scotland may not have the intense tradition of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, but, wherever in the world it takes place, the close space, the heat and the steam, and all that comes with it, do offer a space for stories to come out and for people to connect.

We learn from our neighbours – and that is what Scotland is doing. There is power in other winter cultures, of hot and cold, and we can share in it.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is at Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh Cameo Picturehouse on Friday 13, as well as  The New Picture House St Andrews on October 29, and other cinemas across Scotland