Turbary is an ancient common right that allowed tenants to cut peat for fuel and to strip turf for other uses including repairing hedge banks and roofing. Peat has been very important in the Yorkshire Dales, where in recent centuries there has been relatively little tree cover. Blanket peat occurs mainly in the highest parts of the National Park with the deepest peats occurring on the northern and western sides.
The borders between turbary plots were often the subject of fierce disputes, particularly by the seventeenth century, as tree cover lessened and pressure on peat cutting grounds intensified. Turbary stones demarcate those boundaries, showing the limits of one commoners (or more often group of commoners) rights on the ground. Turbary poaching between manors could lead to hefty fines, although in some cases a village would pay an annual fee to its neighbour for permission to dig turf on their land. Many peat cutting grounds appear not to have turbary stones, and it may be that they were originally marked in a different way, perhaps with wooden markers.
Peat was also used in the mining industry, and became the fuel of choice in many smelt mills. Grinton, Old Gang and Surrender smelt mills each had substantial buildings for storing peat. Turbary rights could be held to cut turf for both smelting and for the roofing of the mine buildings. It is not known if turbary grounds associated with different smelt mills would have been marked by boundary stones.
Peat cutting grounds can often be located through obvious place names, for example, ‘Burnsall Peat Pits’ in Wharfedale. The name ‘Moss’ is frequently associated with peat cutting grounds.
The boundary stones themselves are simple in design. Generally made from roughly shaped stone, they stand up to a metre in height and frequently bear carved initials. It is easy to confuse turbary stones with boundary stones that mark the edges of parish boundaries - both types of markers are often very much alike. One can be sure that a stone is a turbary stone when it located off the line of a parish boundary.