Sensitivity experiments with a simple water-balance model were used to constrain the possible climatic causes of distinct Holocene patterns of lake-level variation in different regions of Europe. Lakes in S Sweden were low at 9 ka, high around 6.5 ka, low again around 4 ka and are high now. Lakes in Estonia show similar but weaker trends. Lakes in S France were highest around 9 ka, lowest around 4 ka, intermediate now. Lakes in Greece were also high around 9 ka but continued rising until 7.5 ka, then fell gradually from 5 ka with a brief high phase around 3 ka, and are low now. The model was forced with insolation anomalies deduced from orbital variations, temperature anomalies inferred from the pollen record and cloudiness anomalies derived from changes in the position of the subtropical anticyclone (inferred from reconstructed changes in the equator-to-pole temperature gradient), in order to evaluate the effects of resultant evaporation changes on catchment water balance. The resulting simulated changes in runoff (precipitation minus actual evapotranspiration) were slight, and frequently opposite to the observed trends. Larger changes in precipitation are plausible and are required to explain the data. The required precipitation increase in N Europe from 9 ka (low) to 6 ka (high) is suggested by GCM experiments to have been a consequence of interacting insolation and residual ice-sheet effects on the atmospheric circulation over the North Atlantic. The explanation of other observed changes, including the drying trend during the Holocene in S Europe, has not been provided by GCM experiments to date. Explanations may lie in changes in mesoscale circulation, sea-surface temperature patterns and the coupling between these phenomena that may not follow orbital changes in any simple way.