When modelling the carbon dynamics of temperate soils, soil organic carbon (SOC) is often represented by three kinetic pools, i.e. fast, slow and passive/inert. Lignin is often considered to be relatively resistant to decomposition, thus possibly contributing to the passive SOC pool. One way to assess SOC turnover under natural conditions is to follow the fate of 13C-labelled biomass in soils. We used compound-specific isotope analysis to analyse CuO oxidation products of lignin from grassland topsoils and from an arable topsoil that had received a natural (by C3-C4 vegetation change) or an artificial (by fumigation with labelled CO2) isotopic label for 9–23 years. Results indicate faster apparent turnover for lignin (5–26 years in grassland, 9–38 years in arable soil) compared with bulk SOC (20–26 years in grassland, 51 years in arable soil). Although these calculated lignin turnover times cannot be extrapolated to the whole soil profiles, this paper provides isotopic evidence that lignin in soils is not preferentially preserved, which is a consistent result from both ways of isotopic labelling. It also demonstrates, however, that a considerable proportion of lignin in temperate soils can be stabilized for at least a few decades.