In this paper, we study how accurately the Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics (SPH) scheme accounts for the conservation and the generation of vorticity and circulation, in a low viscosity, weakly compressible, barotropic fluid in the context of free-surface flows. We consider a number of simple examples to clarify the processes involved and the accuracy of the simulations. The first example is a differentially rotating fluid where the integration path for the circulation becomes progressively more complicated, whereas the structure of the velocity field remains simple. The second example is the collision of two rectangular regions of fluid. We show that SPH accurately predicts the time variation of the circulation as well as the total vorticity for selected domains advected by the fluid. Finally, a breaking wave is considered. For such a problem we show how the dynamics of the vorticity generated by the breaking process is captured by the SPH model. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.