The distribution of genetic diversity at 10 highly polymorphic microsatellite loci within the European freshwater fish, Cottus gobio, L. was examined. The sampling range comprised a large geographical scale including lineages known to be highly divergent at both mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and allozymes. An analysis of genetic variability within populations showed that expected heterozygosity and allelic richness could be explained largely by current effective population sizes. Evidence was found, however, that historical processes predating the last major glaciation affected allelic richness. In addition to confirming the large-scale patterns from earlier studies, the microsatellite data revealed new insights into recent processes by analysing genetic structure within ancient lineages defined by mtDNA data. Stepwise mutation model (SMM) and nonSMM-based methods demonstrated a clear genetic structuring within the Northwestern European lineage comprising populations from Britain and Belgium, and within the Central European lineage populations from the rivers Danube, Elbe and Main. Supported by an analysis of genetic variability within populations these results showed that the bullhead populations most probably persisted throughout the last major glaciation within the British Isles and within the drainages of the rivers Elbe and Main. Such observations provide the first genetic evidence for a glacial refugium in such close proximity to the European glacial margins.