Bairnsdale is situated at latitude 37°49’32” S, longitude 147°36’46” E, on the Princes Highway, a section of Australia’s Highway 1. It is 285 kilometres, or approximately three hours drive, east of the state capital Melbourne. Bairnsdale is close to the beautiful Gippsland Lakes and Bass Strait, and is the official starting point of the spectacular Great Alpine Road which winds across the Australian Alps.
Bairnsdale is located on the river flats of the Mitchell River, near where the Mitchell River empties into Lake King. It is sited on a bend in the river, with the river flowing in along the northern edge of the town, before turning south to flow along the eastern edge, although suburbs are now found across the river to both north and east.
Nearby towns include Paynesville, Lakes Entrance, Bruthen and Metung. Along the Princes Highway to the west are Stratford and Sale, and to the east is Orbost. To the north along the Great Alpine Road are Ensay, Swifts Creek and Omeo, as well as Benambra.
Bairnsdale is the commercial centre for the East Gippsland region and the seat of local government for the East Gippsland Shire.
Educational facilities in Bairnsdale include two high schools, Bairnsdale Secondary College which has approx 1200 students (Government) and Nagle College which has about 800 students (Catholic Private), a number of primary schools and kindergartens, and limited tertiary education facilities mainly consisting of the East Gippsland Institute of TAFE.
The Aboriginal name for Bairnsdale was Wy Yung (or Wy-yung), meaning spoonbill (a type of wading bird). Wy Yung is now the name for a suburb of Bairnsdale, located north of the town across the Mitchell River.
The current name was taken from the name of the property owned by pioneer settler Archibald Macleod, who took up the run on the west bank of the Mitchell River in 1844. Bairnsdale is probably derived from the name of Macleod’s family home on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, which had the name ‘Bernisdale’. An alternative interpretation was that Macleod returned after a long absence to find a number of ‘bairns’ (a Scottish term for babies) at the station. The name may in fact be a conjunction of these two stories, accounting for the transformation of ‘Bernis’ to ‘Bairns’.
The town site itself was not surveyed until 1859, with the first blocks of land sold in 1860. Lucknow (now an eastern suburb of Bairnsdale on the east bank of the river, probably named for the Indian city of Lucknow) was at this time already a thriving village.