The last glacial period, showing the progressive development of large boreal ice sheets, was punctuated by large climatic excursions. These excursions were triggered mainly by atmosphere–ocean–ice coupled dynamics and are thus exemplary case studies of natural climate variability. To characterize the sea-surface palaeohydrographical changes accompanying these oscillations along the European margin, we have integrated new palynological data (dinocysts) acquired on core MD99-2281 (60°N, Faeroe Margin) during Marine Isotope Stage 2 in a latitudinal transect including published cores MD95-2002 (47°N, Celtic Margin) and MD95-2010 (66°N, Vöring Plateau). This transect is superimposed on the modern North Atlantic Drift pathway, but also at the outskirts of glacial European ice sheets, thus ideally located to track sea-ice extent and ice-sheet instabilities through time. The results show a coherent and sensitive response of sea-surface environments to the complex chain of abrupt events that punctuated the end of the last glacial period. The Last Glacial Maximum was marked by large seasonal contrasts of temperatures, whereas Heinrich events (HE) were characterized by a sharp cooling and sea-ice development. A tripartite structure is identified within HE1, with indices of melting at 19k cal a BP, followed by a temperate phase synchronous of a relative stability of ice sheets, and a terminal phase (17.5–15k cal a BP) characteristic of the ‘conventional Laurentian’ HE1. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.