Why did the KLF burn a million pounds on a Scottish island?

Artistic stunt or self-purgatory? Revisit a bizarre episode in Scottish art history involving a dead sheep, machine guns and a remote Hebridean island.

Why did the KLF burn a million pounds on a Scottish island? David Hoult

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In the early hours of the morning on an otherwise insignificant summer’s day on a remote Scottish island, four men stood around a smouldering pile of ash where a million pounds in Sterling had once been. With light dawning, they shovelled the remains into a suitcase and boarded a plane home.

The K Foundation, or KLF as they were previously more commonly known, were no strangers to audacious “art scams”. Originally founded as a dance music duo, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty had fired machine gun blanks from the stage towards the crowd at the Brit Awards ceremony, dumped a dead sheep at the front door of an after party and quit the music business after being named the best British band all in the space of one evening.

Their most outlandish stunt, or at least the one they are best known for, took place on the Isle of Jura’s Ardfin Estate – far removed from a global audience – on August 23, 1994.

“How would you watch £1m burn?”

Accompanied only by frequent collaborator and cameraman ‘Gimpo’ and the Observer journalist Jim Reid, Drummond and Cauty took the bulk of their earnings from the music industry to a disused boathouse and set it alight. For two hours they stood, watching it dissolve into ash.

“How would you watch £1 million burn?” Reid would later write, “With anger? With horror? I could tell you that you watch it at first with great guilt and then, after perhaps ten minutes, boredom. And when the fire has gone out, you just feel cold.”

A still from 'Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid' shows the money burning.

Jura had only been chosen after a slew of other sites vetoed the project. Although Drummond spent his youth in Scotland, he grew up in Newton Stewart, while Cauty had little connection with the country at all. Three years earlier they had burnt a 60-foot tall wicker man to celebrate the summer solstice nearby in front of a much larger crowd.

A 67-minute film of the piece, entitled “Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid”, was released a year later with a novel film tour that allowed the duo to question audiences on their thoughts of the meaning behind the stunt rather than the other way around. Plans were put in place for screenings at Celtic and Rangers football matches, and at Glasgow Green, but those, like another proposed showing at Barlinnie Prison, never took place.

“It seemed like a failure”

The duo placed a moratorium on talking about the stunt for a time limit of 23 years from the date of the burning, later releasing a book to coincide with that particular anniversary.

A poster for the film, which was allegedly to be shown in Barlinnie Prison, among other locations in Glasgow.

Neither Drummond, nor Cauty, has ever fully explained the true reasons behind the stunt, although both have since acknowledged some regrets.

“Cauty and Drummond tend to dismiss their past work,” Reid wrote at the time.

“The million may have come from a critically-acclaimed music career, but to them by now much of it seemed like a failure.

“Perhaps burning the money is a purgative.”