Comparison of levels and patterns of genetic variation in natural populations either across loci or against neutral expectation can yield insight into locus-specific differences in the strength and direction of evolutionary forces. We used both approaches to test the hypotheses on patterns of selection on major histocompatibility (MH)-linked markers. We performed temporal analyses of class I and class IIa MH-linked markers and eight microsatellite loci in two Atlantic salmon populations in Ireland on two temporal scales: over six decades and 9 years in the rivers Burrishoole and Delphi, respectively. We also compared contemporary Burrishoole and Delphi samples with nearby populations for the same loci. On comparing patterns of temporal and spatial differentiation among classes of loci, the class IIa MH-linked marker was consistently identified as an outlier compared with patterns at the other microsatellite loci or neutral expectation. We found higher levels of temporal and spatial heterogeneity in heterozygosity (but not in allelic richness) for the class IIa MH-linked marker compared with microsatellites. Tests on both within- and among-population differentiation are consistent with directional selection acting on the class IIa-linked marker in both temporal and spatial comparisons, but only in temporal comparisons for the class I-linked marker. Our results indicate a complex pattern of selection on MH-linked markers in natural populations of Atlantic salmon. These findings highlight the importance of considering selection on MH-linked markers when using these markers for management and conservation purposes. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited All rights reserved.