The purpose of this paper is to identify simple connections between observations of hydrological processes at the hillslope scale and observations of the response of watersheds following rainfall, with a view to building a parsimonious model of catchment processes. The focus is on the well-studied Panola Mountain Research Watershed (PMRW), Georgia, USA. Recession analysis of discharge Q shows that while the relationship between dQ/dt and Q is approximately consistent with a linear reservoir for the hillslope, there is a deviation from linearity that becomes progressively larger with increasing spatial scale. To account for these scale differences conceptual models of streamflow recession are defined at both the hillslope scale and the watershed scale, and an assessment made as to whether models at the hillslope scale can be aggregated to be consistent with models at the watershed scale. Results from this study show that a model with parallel linear reservoirs provides the most plausible explanation (of those tested) for both the linear hillslope response to rainfall and non-linear recession behaviour observed at the watershed outlet. In this model each linear reservoir is associated with a landscape type. The parallel reservoir model is consistent with both geochemical analyses of hydrological flow paths and water balance estimates of bedrock recharge. Overall, this study demonstrates that standard approaches of using recession analysis to identify the functional form of storage-discharge relationships identify model structures that are inconsistent with field evidence, and that recession analysis at multiple spatial scales can provide useful insights into catchment behaviour. Copyright ?? 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.